USF heating up as AAC play nears

Monica Santos has been a big contributor to the Bulls’ offense this month, with a .471

In late February, the USF softball team hit a wall, and came off a slump in which it lost four of five games. Since March 1, USF has won 18 of its 19 games by an average of four runs, and with conference play arriving, USF is getting hot at just the right time.

As a young team coming in with 12 underclassmen, USF’s first month was littered with mistakes — 27 errors in the first 27 games. Now with 36 games under their belt, the Bulls are jelling as a unit, and have committed only two errors in their past nine games.

“I think it was just nerves in the beginning,” senior Sam Greiner said. “We had a lot of young players out there on the field. Now we’re a tightly knit group. We support each other and love playing together and that helps a lot.”

It’s hard to pin the recent success on one particular factor. The Bulls (28-8) have improved in virtually every category and are beginning to turn heads.

It starts with dominant pitching.

The pitching staff had a combined ERA of 0.81 in March prior to its two shutouts this week. That’s down from a staggering 3.56 ERA in February. 

“It’s the mark of a great player,” coach Ken Eriksen said. “They learn from their mistakes and they don’t do it again. We’re rectifying (mistakes) and coming together.”

This isn’t the work of just one ace in the lineup. All four pitchers have earned at least three wins this month, with ERAs under 1.04 while holding opposing batters to hitting just .191.

Senior Karla Claudio (7-2) has been USF’s workhorse in recent weeks, appearing in 13 of 21 games, while leading the nation in saves with six.

Greiner (8-2) leads the team in wins, redshirt freshman Susan Wysocki is an undefeated 6-0, and junior Erica Nunn (7-4) has the fourth-best ERA in the conference (1.68) with a no-hitter under her belt.

But pitching can only go so far. What has kept USF from cooling off has been its potent offense.

USF has outscored its opponents 104-19 during this stretch while leading the AAC in batting average (.326), runs (202), RBIs (168), steals (63), triples (13) and the list goes on.

Runs lift the burden off the shoulders of the bullpen.

“In past years we haven’t been a great scoring team,” Greiner said. “We scored maybe two or three and then held teams, which is great, but it takes the weight off and allows you to just throw the pitches you want to throw.”

Junior Monica Santos leads the team with a .471 average for the month with seven extra-base hits, but the Bulls have gotten production out of virtually every player.

“It’s been such a long season already that people forget that (Juli) Weber was carrying us early on and Spivey has been consistent all year long and D’Anna Devine … so, the depth is there,” Eriksen said.

The Bulls’ offense is clicking and they are hitting their stride at just the right time as they travel to Houston on Saturday for a two-game series to begin conference play. 

“(The momentum) is huge,” Greiner said. “Going into conference play with the record we have is great. We have that momentum and we’ll take it into Friday, Saturday and Sunday to Houston and we have the confidence that we can play with anybody.”

USF leads the all-time series with the Cougars 13-9, including a series sweep in 2014.

Houston (14-16) has a small ballpark — 200 feet at center field — that will benefit USF’s high-powered offense which, though it doesn’t rely on power, can send balls over the fence.

USF has hit 20 homers this season, eight of which have come from catcher Lee Ann Spivey, who passed Carmela Liwag earlier this month for eighth on the all-time home runs list with 21.

The Bulls hope to maintain their run as the series with Houston kicks off at 2 p.m. Saturday and again at 1 p.m. Sunday.