UW will have to figure out how to score on Jolene Henderson this weekend. (Photo via Cal Softball Facebook - Like them!)
Jace Williams broke Washington.
At least, that seems to be the reasonable conclusion. On March 30th, 3rd ranked Washington hosted the Bears in Seattle. The Huskies entered the day with a record of 32-1. Their only loss was a neutral-site defeat to a top 15 Missouri team. And for six innings Washington absolutely stymied the Cal offense, allowing just one hit.
But in the 7th Frani Echavarria doubled, Jamia Reid singled, Valerie Arioto walked, and Jace Williams stepped to the plate with 2 outs and the bases loaded. Jace doubled down the line to drive in the tying and winning runs, and Cal won. The Bears would go on to win the final two games of the series by more comfortable margins.
After Jace's double the Huskies went 4-15 to close out the regular season, finishing 2nd to last in the Pac-12. Jace broke them, and she broke them good.
But to Washington's credit, they got back enough mojo to win their own regional with a perfect record. Three shut-out wins over Harvard, Texas Tech and Harvard have given the Huskies a second shot at the Bears. But Cal already swept Washington in Seattle, so why should we expect things to finish differently in Berkeley?
Well, you shouldn't. There's a reason that every ESPN expert has picked Cal to win this series in two games. The Bears are the superior team by pretty much any measure.
Washington can be a dangerous team because of Kaitlin Inglesby. When UW was destroying non-conference competition, it was because Inglesby was near-unhittable. She carried that momentum through six innings against Cal before Jace's double, and like the rest of her team it just hasn't been the same since. Inglesby's Pac-12 ERA is 3.60. Nothing to be ashamed of, but nowhere near how she had been pitching earlier in the year.
Inglesby pitched 10 innings in last week's regional, allowing only 8 baserunners, no extra base hits and no runs. I can only speculate on how much of a challenge Harvard was, but Washington's hopes ride on Inglesby rediscovering her early season mojo against one of the nation's elite offenses.
And unfortunately for UW, run scoring has arguably been a bigger issue than pitching. Only 2-22 Utah scored fewer runs during conference play, and the Huskies finished last in the conference in home runs. Washington has scored more than four runs only five times in the regular season since Jace's double, and not coincidentally, those five games include every UW win in that span of games.
Even when they swept through regionals the Huskies only scored eight runs in three games. In terms of power threats it's Inglesby again (like Val, a two-way threat who plays 1st when she's not pitching) and then not much. Inglesby has 10 home runs and is one of just three regulars with a slugging percentage over .500 (Cal, by comparison, has six such players).
So the Bears have the pitching advantage and the hitting advantage, and they have the better fielding percentage. That's good. Really, the only question Cal fans have to ponder is: who pitches Game Two? We all know that Jolene will be in the circle for Game One. And we also know that if she can pitch five games in three days she can probably handle three games (if necessary) in two.
Even still, Valerie Arioto picked up a win against the Huskies and despite a rough couple of ABs against Arkansas is still an elite pitcher. It's an embarrassment of riches. I doubt Jolene needs the rest, but a light week ahead of a potential CWS run would be nice. This is me being greedy.
In case you needed a reminder, every game this weekend will air nationally on ESPN2, so don't miss it. Go Bears!