The Wildcats are back in the win column.
Danielle O’Toole tossed her third shutout of the season and Tamara Statman drove in two runs as the Arizona softball team beat Texas 3-0 on Friday at Hillenbrand Stadium to kick off the three-game series.
The sixth-ranked Wildcats, who were coming off a 1-0 loss to No. 1 Florida State, improve to 16-1 overall, while Texas falls to 11-7.
“That was a good game,” UA head coach Mike Candrea said. “That’s softball that I know and I told them that these are the types of games that you have to win and … some nights it’s with your hitting. Some night it’s with your defense. Some nights it’s with your pitching. And tonight we got great pitching, played good defense and got some timely hits. That’s championship softball.”
O’Toole, who was battling a cold, pitched seven innings, allowing just four hits and a walk, while striking out seven.
Texas’ Tiarra Davis pitched a complete game, allowing three earned runs in six innings while giving up three walks.
Arizona had six hits, and shortstop Mo Mercado continued her hot streak, tallying two hits (both were doubles) and scoring twice.
Mercado, whose batting average sits at .510, has 13 hits in her last 16 at-bats. Candrea said this is the most comfortable he has ever seen Mercado at the plate.
“I think she’s playing the game with a lot of maturity,” he said of the senior. “It’s fun to watch.”
Mercado also made a few stellar defensive plays to help O’Toole complete the shutout.
In the top of the fifth, Texas got the leadoff runner on, but then Mercado scooped up a squibbing grounder up the middle, stepped on second, and fired to first for a rally-killing double play.
“I literally just told her I don’t have a shortstop, I have a wall,” O’Toole said after the game. “It’s awesome.”
Mercado scored the first run of the game in the second inning when Statman pulled a single to right, bringing home Mercado who doubled to begin the frame.
“The first at-bat I was seeing it well, I was making sure I was seeing [the ball] deep and I knew from [Alyssa Palomino] that when she was behind in the count she would throw in,” the left-handed hitting Statman said.
The score remained 1-0 until the sixth inning when Wildcats first baseman Jessie Harper singled to left to score Palomino, then Statman knocked in Mercado once again with a sacrifice fly to make it 3-0.
“Tonight we talked about having a good two-strike approach,” Candrea said. “There’s games and there’s times where we can’t just match power for power. And I’ve been saying this all along. For us to be really good, we have to be good with two strikes. We have to be able to put the ball in play. We have 21 outs, we want to make 21 tough outs.”
Statman was 1-for-1 with a walk and two RBIs, raising her season average to .419.
“T does a good job,” Candrea said. “T’s got a nice, short compact swing. The big thing with her is not to chase (pitches).”
Texas put a runner into scoring position in three different innings, but each time O’Toole was able to escape the jam, allowing her to preserve the shutout.
“I’m proud of this group,” Candrea said. “These are the types of games that we have to learn to win. Like I told them, two years ago that probably wouldn’t have happened. We would have found a way to get beat there.”
O’Toole (9-1) lowered her ERA to 0.34, as the redshirt senior has allowed just three earned runs in 61 innings this season.
“I like where we’re at right now,” Candrea said. “It’s good to walk out here and known everyday that you have the pitching, the defense, and the hitting to be able to compete with anyone.”
Arizona and Texas will play game two of this three-game series on Saturday at 6 p.m. MST at Hillenbrand Stadium.
“This is a great series for us to have here at home,” Candrea said. “Three-game series, same format as Pac-12, a good team, good pitching, competitive.
“I’d rather be playing these games than playing games where we’re scoring 12, 15 runs.”
Heeke throws first pitch, impresses Candrea
Arizona’s new athletic director Dave Heeke threw the ceremonial first pitch, and then watched some of the game next to Cedric Dempsey and Rocky LaRose, who led the search to find UA’s new A.D.
Heeke’s underhand pitch sailed just high of the strike zone.
“His pitching wasn’t bad,” Candrea joked. “I told him he better not throw it overhand, so he worked over [in the bullpen]. He’s got good work ethic. The mechanics were not quite there yet, but we’ll get after it.”
On a more serious note, Candrea said he has visited with Heeke a couple times and is “excited” about the hire.
“He’s an old baseball guy which makes me happy, although he’s catcher,” Candrea said. “I was very impressed with his press conference. I think he’s a guy that’s definitely been in the seat for a lot of years. I love that he was at two places for a long time.
“I knew the softball coach at Central Michigan and I’ve heard nothing but really good things about him. I’m excited and it was a good hire to this point.”
New athletic director @Dave_Heeke threw the first pitch at tonight's Arizona softball game pic.twitter.com/LVBN34okY0— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) March 4, 2017
Mauga is “pressing”
Before Harper’s RBI single in the sixth, Candrea called for Katiyana Mauga to bunt to move Palomino to second.
Asking the power-hitting third baseman to bunt seemed like an unusual move, seeing that she is Arizona’s cleanup hitter and on pace to break the NCAA’s all-time home run record, but Candrea thinks Mauga has been “pressing” at the plate lately.
“In certain situations, everyone on this team better learn how to bunt,” Candrea said. “Because it’s going to depend on number one, how well you’re swinging it. Number two, we’re going to try to find a way to push a run (across) because I’d rather go up there with a two-run lead than with a one-run lead in the seventh inning, and I don’t care who it is, whether it’s Kati, Palomino or Mo Mercado. If we need to lay down a bunt, we lay down a bunt. We work on it all the time.”
Mauga failed to get the bunt down and was 0-for-3 on Friday, and is 1-for-10 in the last four games.
“Kati ... is grinding and when you grind in this game it eats you up,” Candrea said. “Kati just needs to relax and let the game come to her. She’s pressing right now, trying to make things happen. It’s hard to play this game if you’re thinking about other things besides just a simple see-ball, hit-ball.”
Candrea said it’s going to be a “challenging year” for Mauga because of her place in the home run chase.
“There’s some nights when you can’t swing for home runs,” he said. “Right now she needs to square up a ball and then from that, good things will happen.”
Mauga has 74 career home runs, placing her 13 homers away from the UA’s all-time record and 21 shy of the NCAA record.
The senior is hitting .325 this season with seven home runs.
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire