Although it has feasted on the plethora of low-hanging fruit early on in the season, taking care of business by dismantling clearly inferior opponents, the No. 23 Cal softball team has struggled mightily when clashing against premier schools, elite individual talent or a merciless combination of the two.
Utterly dominated on both ends of the ball by the likes of No. 2 Florida, No. 8 Minnesota and Tulsa led by junior standout Emily Watson, the Bears (17-5) will have to undergo some serious soul searching regarding their play against the country’s finest talent. Cal will have to rediscover its winning ways fast as its latest matchup puts it in the ring for three rounds against a relentless juggernaut that has done nothing but churn out win after win.
Cal travels to the Pacific Northwest this weekend for a three-game road trip against national powerhouse No. 3 Oregon (24-0), the only nationally ranked team that has yet to lose a single game this season.
Featuring a lineup loaded with elite talent, Oregon currently averages about eight runs per game with a team batting average of .384 — the third highest among Division I schools in the country — and five qualified players hitting .381 or better.
Leading the flock for Oregon is its top of the lineup, one-two punch of sophomores Alexis Mack and Danica Mercado, who have slash lines (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) of .500/.554/.594 and .493/.531/.693, respectively. With batting averages sitting in the top 20 of Division 1 schools, Mack and Mercado know how to set the table for the middle of the lineup. Having stolen 11 bags each, the duo is no stranger to swiping an extra 60 feet as well, putting additional pressure on opposing defenses.
The Bears’ pitching staff won’t be out of the woods after facing the tandem of Mack and Mercado, as they’ll also have to find a way to contain senior Nikki Udria, who leads Oregon in home runs (6), RBIs (29), total bases (57) and slugging percentage (.770).
Oregon’s pitching staff has been equally lethal, and the Bears will have to find a way to muster some type of offense. The three games in which Cal has scored no runs came against the aforementioned Florida, Minnesota and Tulsa, all of which have either a lights out starter or a complete pitching staff.
The Bears will square off against Oregon’s three-headed monster of a rotation, composed of freshmen Miranda Elish and Maggie Balint and sophomore Megan Kleist, whose accumulative ERA of 1.12 ranks seventh in the nation among Division I schools.
Over 150 innings, Oregon’s pitching staff has held opponents to only 24 earned runs and a batting average of .182 while striking out about nine batters per seven innings. Leading the charge for Oregon’s pitching staff is Balint, who leads her contemporaries in innings pitched, strikeouts and opponents batting average.
The Bears will have their work cut out for them this weekend, and the question of whether they can step up to the plate against the country’s best still looms as a cloud of doubt.
Justice delos Santos covers softball. Contact him at [email protected]