Welcome Back! UW Revitalized For Cal, Super Regional
May 25, 2012
By Gregg Bell UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - California has steamrolled just about everybody in the Pac-12 - and the country -- this season.
Cal went 21-3 to win the conference and 50-4 overall in the regular season, earning the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. And the Golden Bears routed every league opponent by at least five runs - except one.
The dangerously revived Washington Huskies.
What may look to some like Mission: Improbable for UW in the best-of-three NCAA super regional at Berkeley beginning Saturday at 7 p.m. (ESPN2 television, streaming video with commentary here on GoHuskies.com) is a mammoth opportunity in the minds of the revitalized Dawgs.
The 16th-seeded Huskies (39-17) left for the Bay Area Thursday believing last weekend's rebounding sweep of Harvard and Texas Tech to win its regional has them back playing nearer to its talent level following a 7-16 conference season.
"We got a chance to see what the Pac-12 season had actually done to us. Did it kill us? No, it didn't," Huskies coach Heather Tarr said Wednesday, days after winning her seventh NCAA regional in eight seasons. "I think we proved at least to ourselves that we know how to compete. We haven't forgotten how to play the game. We didn't all the sudden forget how to play...
"We got the, `All right, we know how to play!' Now we get to move forward to this next adventure and make things happen at the next level."
The revitalization has UW's players pumped for Cal (54-5), stoked for this chance at advance to next week's Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City.
"I feel our energy is where it should have been all year," senior Taylor Smith says. "I don't know why it took all year, but the energy and the momentum we had last weekend was unreal."
The Huskies are deeper in pitching than they were when they last played at Cal at the end of March; three UW starters shut out three consecutive opponents last weekend.
And Washington is drawing confidence from the three close games it played in Berkeley seven weeks ago, the first of which the Huskies came within one strike of winning.
"I mean, the general public is not going to go back and look at the video of how we competed against Cal. We feel pretty confident in what we were able to do the last time we did face them," Tarr said.
Sophomore ace Kaitlin Inglesby (19-10, 2.21 ERA) will make her 30th start of the season in Saturday night's super-regional opener. She had a shutout going two outs into the seventh and final inning March 30 at Cal, and the then third-ranked Huskies thought she had the Bears' Jace Williams struck out with the bases loaded to end what would have been a 1-0 win. It would have been Washington's second win over the nation's top-ranked team in two months, following February's victory over Florida.
"The first game we had the game in our hands," Tarr said. "Kaitlin wasn't at her best, but she threw a pretty good game. They had the bases loaded, two outs. We threw a pitch that could have been called a ball or a strike to strike the batter out. It was called a ball.
"The next pitch, base hit down the third-base line. Game-winner."
It was only the second one-run decision in 32 Cal games. After a rain out that Saturday, UW lost a pair of two-run games in a Sunday doubleheader. Inglesby also started the third game of that series, losing her first two games after 16 wins to start the Huskies' season.
"We competed, I thought, just fine. We just didn't win `em," Tarr said of the 1-0, 5-3 and 6-4 defeats that dropped UW to 32-4 at the time.
Now, after arm soreness and a stretch of wandering confidence during league play, Inglesby - also UW's leading hitter -- is getting back to her dominant form of her freshman season as a pitcher. She shutout Harvard on three hits with seven strikeouts in last Friday's regional opener.
"I'm ready to prove it," she says of her postseason resurgence.
She now has proven help.
Washington's pitching is as deep as it's been in years right now. Kasey Stancheck and Bryana Walker started the other two UW wins in last week's regional - and each had complete-game shutouts of their own.
Cal now has to prepare for facing all three, and each brings something different to the plate. Inglesby relies on power, Stancheck and Walker more on precision and deception.
Tarr thinks the rugged Pac-12 season taught all three of her pitchers they can't simply fire pitches at hitters down the heart of the plate, nor can they afford to "nibble" and walk batters, either.
They toed that fine line exquisitely in the regionals, throwing those 21 scoreless innings.
"It's a mental-toughness thing," Tarr said. "Having gone through that in the pressure cooker of the Pac-12 has prepared us to perform at the level we are now.
"The three of them are really competitive amongst each other. I think Bryana thinks she could be our number one. I think Kasey thinks she can do more than she's doing. I think Kaitlin is a little bit scratchy over not pitching more than she did this (past) weekend, which is good.
"If we don't have one horse then the three of them have to compete among themselves to get better. And I think that's what they are doing."
Cal has two horses. Jolene Henderson is 34-6 with a 1.12 ERA and 284 strikeouts in 241 1-3 innings. Co-ace Valerie Arioto is 20-3 with a 1.32 ERA and is also has 22 home runs and a .387 batting average.
A loss at home to Arkansas on day two of last weekend's regional in Berkeley, Cal's first home postseason games since 1993, forced the Bears to go through the loser's bracket to advance to this super regional.
Not that the Huskies are preoccupied with any of that.
"When this team prepares itself to worry about ourselves, we're good," Tarr said, adding "offensively, I think we are in a good spot.
"By and large if this team worries about itself and plays its games, we can compete with anybody.
"This is what we've been playing all year for," the veteran coach with a 40-16 postseason record said.
"We think our best games are still ahead of us."