By Tom Blodgett
In the race for a national championship, Washington’s zoom to the top of the polls in the first weeks of the season has to rank as one of the bigger surprise developments to date.
Not that people didn’t expect Washington to be good – even great. The Huskies were among the last four standing at the Women’s College World Series in 2017, and they opened 2018 in the No. 4 spot in the USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association ranking and No. 5 for ESPN/USA Softball.
But the distance to No. 1 seemed particularly long this year with two-time defending champion Oklahoma only getting better on paper. And it’s not as if Washington didn’t have question marks, either.
The questions got answered early in a bombardment of run-rule games and an unending string of victories.
“We’re just a connected group,” Washington coach Heather Tarr said. “We’re a bunch of talented, overachieving young women. That’s what our team is.”
Overachieving? Well, Washington did lose a couple of key players in shortstop and leadoff hitter Ali Aguilar and left fielder and No. 3 hitter Casey Stangel. They provided 25 home runs and knocked in 94 runs between them as seniors.
But the real test may have come from an unexpected loss. Just before the season was to start, junior catcher Morganne Flores tore her anterior cruciate ligament in practice, taking another big bat (.335, 13 home runs, 74 RBI in 2017) out of the lineup and putting her backup, Rachel Ogasawara, with six career starts, and a freshman, Emma Helm, behind the plate.
Still, it didn’t stop, or even slow, the Huskies. They opened at the Peterson Hotels Invitational in Peoria, Ill., and though the field wasn’t imposing, Washington’s results were – five run-rule wins in five outings: 15-3, 11-0, 19-0, 10-0 and 15-0.
Later, they went 5-0 at the Mary Nutter Classic, including a 4-3 win against then-No. 6 Texas A&M, and also 5-0 at their own Husky Invitational, featuring a pair of wins against then-No. 11 Alabama. In all, it led to a 28-0 start.
“I thought our team did a pretty good job early on making it known that we’re going to be OK, and I still believe in that,” Tarr said. “We have good pitching. We have good defense.”
The impressive start led to that quick hike to No. 1.
“I think (we are) capitalizing off of last year’s good ending,” senior first baseman Kirstyn Thomas said. “We just are hungry for more so (we are) coming out playing as a team this year and competing every pitch of the game. That’s what’s fueled us for this year.”
The Huskies finally met their match Saturday when Arizona State’s ‘G’ Juarez beat them 2-0 in Tempe, Arizona.
Washington bounced back with a 7-0 win Sunday behind Taran Alvelo’s three-hitter. That was enough to keep Washington at No. 1 for the week when the votes were collected Monday.
But it’s a stay on top that’s also about to end. Arizona State came back Monday with a near carbon-copy of Saturday’s game. Danielle Gibson had a two-run double in the first inning – just like Saturday – and that stood up behind another shutout from Juarez – just like Saturday.
Not that Tarr will lose much sleep over losing the No. 1 ranking.
“I mean some of that’s a product of your record,” she said with a shrug after the first loss to ASU. “It is what it is. We hadn’t had a loss on our record. Are we the number one team today? No. Nobody is. So it’s a product of our schedule a little bit, and we had taken care of business.”
Washington had taken care of business in a big way. While pitching and defense is its strength, the hitting hadn’t been lacking. The Huskies have a ton of speed at the top and bottom of the order and power in the middle.
Washington is hitting a robust .351 as a team, sixth in the nation; has 1.32 home runs per game, fifth in the country; and scores 7.39 runs per game, ranking fourth.
Three players are over .400 in senior third baseman Taylor Van Zee (.444), Thomas (.429) and sophomore shortstop Sis Bates (.422), with senior center fielder Kelly Burdick sitting close at .394.
The pitching was always expected to be there with Alvelo, a junior, and sophomore Samantha Manti returning. Alvelo’s numbers have gotten even better from her 35-9, 2.07 ERA sophomore season. She’s 13-1 with a 0.85 ERA this year, and her Sunday outing at ASU matched Juarez’s Saturday with a three-hit shutout and 11 strikeouts.
“I’m just older,” Alvelo said about her improvement. “I’ve learned how to throw to batters. I’ve learned how to pitch in situations, and I’m not looking this year to go for the strikeout numbers. I’m just going to make sure they don’t score, keep them scoring as little as possible in their offense. We can win if that happens.”
What people probably didn’t see coming was the immediate contribution of Gabbie Plain, a freshman right-hander from Sydney, Australia. She’s 9-1 with a 0.62 ERA.
“She provides a whole new look,” Alvelo said. “Gabbie, coming in from Australia, has that international feel to her. She kind of adds just that little bit of spin, and she complements all of us pitchers very well. We have a very balanced pitching staff this year, and it’s awesome.”
One thing Washington did show throughout the weekend was outstanding defense. All that speed allowed outfielders to run down balls in the gap. Burdick threw out a runner at the plate Saturday. And the infielders came up with nifty snags all weekend as well to help the cause.
“That’s what our foundation is,” Tarr said. “It’s going to be the pitching. It’s going to be the defense.”
But despite the early season offensive success – some of it against lesser lights – the question remaining to be answered is how those big hitting numbers will stand up through Pac-12 Conference play.
“Can we manufacture runs?” Tarr said. “That’s yet to be determined against this kind of pitching and this type of environment.”
Washington’s next chance to answer that comes this weekend when the Huskies have their first home series in Pac-12 play, an already critical matchup against No. 9 Arizona, the early leader in conference play after sweeping Utah last weekend.
Alvelo took the ASU series as a wakeup call that they have to keep working.
“We’re not going to lay down,” she said. “We’re not going to just give up. And I think that’s what makes us so unique. That we’re fighters. We stayed together and, you know, iron sharpens iron with us.”