The Bull pen

The softball team hopes its newfound pitching depth will bring success as it prepares for Big East Conference play.

When: Today, Game 1, 4 p.m. Where: Patricia Wilson Field

As the softball team heads into its last non-conference doubleheader of the season against Stetson, the Bulls are looking eagerly toward conference play. The early season tournament schedule showed some glaring weaknesses, but also put the spotlight on the depth of the pitching staff.

Despite a 27-15 record, USF has won nine of its last 12 games, which featured solid pitching. The Bulls go on the road for the first time this season against Stetson. USF has dominated Stetson in head-to-head meetings, with a 41-5 record, including winning the last two contests.

Cristi Ecks and Bree Spence dominated the pitching position last season, but coach Ken Eriksen realized he needed more depth. Eriksen was able to bring in freshman Kristen Gordon and have junior Courtney Mosch transfer from Syracuse this year.

“There always has been focus to have depth on the pitching staff,” Eriksen said. “Last year, we had two big starters and Kasey (Cash) could give us spots in relief, but the design has always been to have four or five pitchers on the staff.”

Spence and Ecks combined to start 69 of the 75 games last season, carrying the load of the staff. Both pitchers struggled with fatigue at the end of the season and weren’t able to get the Bulls into the College World Series.

With both pitchers logging 200-plus innings, the wear and tear of a long season took its toll. Spence had to have shoulder surgery in the off-season and is still not 100 percent, and Ecks didn’t even try to pick up a softball during the summer.

“By this time last season was when my arm started to have some pain, and this year I don’t feel much pain at all,” Ecks said. “I feel like I can go longer in games and at the end of the season, I won’t feel like I have to lay around all summer.”

Mosch has become the X-factor, not only on the staff, but in the lineup as well. Mosch has positioned herself as the No. 3 starter behind Spence and Ecks with a 5-2 record in seven starts. Mosch has a 1.27 ERA and has given up only one home run in 44 innings pitched.

Out of the circle, Mosch is consistent in the field playing either right field or first base. Mosch is batting .302 this season and is tied for second on the team with 14 RBIs.

“I can’t tell you how well I sleep at night knowing that we are going to get a consistent performance every single day,” Eriksen said. “She is a ball player and there is no question that she lends some stability to our lineup.”

Mosch has been battling a kidney infection the last two weeks, which has forced Kristen Gordon to pick up some slack. Gordon has stepped up and filled three roles on the pitching staff – spot starter, middle relief and closer.

Gordon has a 9-3 record in 24 appearances and leads the staff with 112 strikeouts. Gordon is holding opposing teams to a .185 batting average and has three complete-game victories.

“We are fortunate to have Kristen Gordon come in and take innings away from our starters,” Eriksen said. “That’s really key because you want your starters to be fresh and have their best stuff at the end of the year.”

Cash is the unknown factor of the pitching staff and wants to keep it that way. Cash made 24 relief appearances last season out of the bullpen, but has only made six appearances in 2007.

Despite the limited appearances, Eriksen has the confidence to bring Cash into the game during any situation. Cash thrives in those situations and has the closer mentality to succeed in late-game pressure situations.

“Basically, you have to be ready to pitch at any time during the game,” Cash said. “Coming in with runners on base and knowing that you can’t let a run score is pressure, but it’s good pressure.”

The depth of the staff is going to be a big plus for the team in conference play and in the Big East Tournament. With four starters on the staff, the Bulls have the firepower in the circle to match Louisville or Notre Dame.

Spence, who is a three-year starting pitcher, believes the caliber of talent on the staff will show in conference play. USF was picked during the preseason coaches’ poll to finish second in the Big East.

“In the end of the season, it’s a matter of who can outlast each other and I think with having this depth, it saves our arms,” Spence said. “Just the fact that we have more than one pitcher it allows us to bring in a fresh pitcher at any time.”