The halfway point of conference play will be the toughest test so far for Colorado State softball as they welcome the Mountain West leading Utah State Aggies to Ram Field on Thursday.
The Rams (20-13, 6-6 MW) are in a three-way tie for third and two and a half games behind the first place Aggies (25-9, 8-3 MW), but with a sweep of the series, the Rams could move into first depending on the outcomes of Boise State’s and Nevada’s games this weekend.
In order for the Rams to bring out the brooms and sweep Utah State, they will have to get through the leading candidate for Mountain West Pitcher of the Year, Kellie White. The freshman pitcher has dominated all season as seen by her 1.69 ERA, which is half a run better than the next closest pitcher in conference.
White will not be the only worry for the Rams’ batters, as senior April Brown is the owner of a 2.51 ERA, putting her in seventh in the MW. The duo does most of the pitching for the Aggies which is why they lead the conference in team ERA at 2.55.
“We definitely need to hit our pitch and keep it fair a little bit better,” head coach Jen Fisher said. “It is going to be similar approach we have had all year, just trying to keep our swing short, battle with two strikes but try to get the hits early in the count when we can.”
The Rams might be the worst matchup for Utah State, as CSU leads in runs scored in conference games with 72 and also lead in hits with 102. They are coming off of a series against San Jose State in which they were able to win two games against a Spartans squad that has two of the top five leading pitchers in ERA by scoring five runs in both victories.
Senior Haley Hutton has been the driving force behind one of the conference’s best offenses as she has the most hits (20) and most runs scored (20) in MW play. The lefty leadoff hitter has the benefit of sophomore tandem Lauren Buchanan and Amber Nelson batting behind to help get her home as they each have 10 RBIs against conference opponents, good enough for a tie for fifth in the MW.
The key to the Rams success however will be with their pitching.
Junior Larisa Petakoff’s 2.38 ERA is the fourth lowest in conference, but she has struggled against MW opponents with her last three starts not making it past the second inning. Petakoff was able to pitch a complete game four-hit shutout against Northern Colorado on Tuesday which coach Fisher hopes she can help her confidence.
As for the other two main pitchers for the Rams, junior Kaylynn Pierce and sophomore Bridgette Hutton hope to continue their recent success. Pierce was able to dominate the first game of both the New Mexico and San Jose State series and Hutton also controlled the Spartans by throwing a three-hit shutout in the second game of that series.
“It is all about comfort and confidence on your pitching side,” Fisher said. “Larisa had a great outing, she really attacked the zone, the defense played awesome behind our pitchers so hopefully there is that good feeling going into this weekend that the pitchers are going to do their job and the defense will take care of it behind them.”
Title contending teams are always well rounded though, and the same goes for Utah State by their offense matching their pitching and defense.
Utah State senior Sarina Jaramillo was named Player of the Week by hitting three home runs and collecting six RBIs in her team’s games last week, one of those being a walk off home run to defeat Fresno State 1-0. Those home runs have put her in third place in the MW with eight on the year, two behind first-place Nelson (10).
The MW is one of four conferences in the country to not have a conference tournament to determine an automatic qualifier for the NCAA tournament. Therefore, the Rams have to win the regular season title and that quest to the top will need a big series win this weekend.
“They are aware of the standings in the conference and are aware that this is an important series for us,” Fisher said. “If we can go into it with an attitude of we control our own destiny then we really don’t have anything to lose and everything to gain.”
The action begins Thursday at 4 p.m. with games two and three set for 4 p.m. on Friday and 11 a.m. on Saturday.
Collegian sports reporter Austin White can be reached by email email@example.com or on Twitter @ajwrules44