Jessie Harper entered Friday with three hits in her last eight games, putting her in a 3-for-23 slump.
She picked a good time to break out of it.
The UA first baseman was 3-for-3 with three RBIs as No. 3 Arizona squeaked past No. 23 ASU 4-3 in the series opener at Hillenbrand Stadium.
“I’m definitely trying to work my way up to where I started,” said Harper, who is hitting .344 this season. “I’m gonna finish out the second half of the season and postseason strong hopefully.”
With Arizona trailing 3-2 in the bottom of the third, Harper singled through the left side, scoring pinch runner Eva Watson from second to tie the game.
Two innings later, Harper laced an RBI double down the right field line, scoring Mo Mercado from first to give Arizona a decisive 4-3 lead.
“Those few hits in the beginning weren’t anything special but … there was a runner on and I was able to move her and score, so that’s all that really mattered,” Harper said.
Harper accounted for half of Arizona’s hit total, and knocked in a run in the first inning which put UA up 2-0 at the time.
The Wildcats’ first run scored via an ASU error.
“We were slow at making adjustments at the plate, which we’re usually pretty good at,” head coach Mike Candrea said. “Harper did a nice job but we had some kids that did the same thing three times in a row without making an adjustment.”
Katiyana Mauga, Alyssa Palomino, and Ashleigh Hughes were the only other Wildcats to register in the hit column, and they each had one hit apiece.
“I just thought we came out a little bit flat tonight, to be honest with you,” Candrea said. “And I told the team that. We have to bring a little more energy to the ballpark.”
He added, “I’m not saying that this team was not prepared to play tonight, I’m just thinking right now that there’s a learning curve for freshmen and that learning curve is that they don’t really understand (the rivalry).
“They think the rivalry with us is UCLA. And so there’s a learning curve and tonight I thought it was a good one.”
Danielle O’Toole understood what was at stake, however.
O’Toole (25-3) tossed a complete game for the Wildcats and retired 13 of the final 15 batters after allowing three runs in the first three innings (one was unearned).
Credit Mercado with an assist.
“I had a little bit of trouble with the strike zone in the first couple innings, and then after that Mo had actually said something to all of us,” O’Toole said. “She told us that we needed to be better and we’re not going to let them win this. It’s not OK. And I really kinda took that and said, ‘she’s right. I need to be better. I need to light a fire.’
“And I did.”
ASU only mustered four hits off O’Toole, but did take advantage of an Arizona miscue early in the ballgame.
In the second inning, ASU second baseman Marisa Stankiewicz laid a bunt down the third base line, which was collected by Mauga.
However, Reyna Carranco could not corral the throw at first, allowing Chelsea Gonzales to score, cutting UA’s lead to 2-1.
Emma Ramelot then hit a sacrifice fly to score Ulufa Leilua, who advanced to third on Carranco’s error, to knot the game at 2-2.
An RBI single by Gonzales gave ASU a 3-2 lead in the third.
“Normally, it takes me about two batters to figure out (the strike zone),” O’Toole said. “It took me about two innings (tonight).”
Still, O’Toole eventually settled in and was able to out-duel ASU starter Breanna Macha (11-6), who allowed six hits and two walks while striking out four.
Two of the four runs Macha surrendered were unearned as ASU committed two errors of its own.
In the first inning, a grounder off Mercado’s bat skipped past Gonzales at short, letting not-so-speedy Mauga score all the way from first for the game’s first run.
Harper then drove in Mercado with a looping single to center. All three of Harper’s RBIs came via two-out hits.
“There’s a different intensity when you get to these games and you can throw out records,” Candrea said. “Anything can happen in every sport that we play in.”
Except home runs, apparently.
Despite the wind blowing out all game and Arizona and ASU being notorious home-run hitting teams, neither team was able to lift the ball out of the park.
“It’s amazing that nothing did go out,” Candrea said. “I walked out here and the wind’s blowing 40 miles per hour and it’s blowing straight out, I’m thinking wow, we elevate a few balls and it could be fun, but it was a completely different game.”
The victory improves Arizona’s record to 46-4 overall and 16-3 in the Pac-12, while ASU falls to 27-15 and 6-10, respectively.
Game two of the series is set for Saturday at 6 p.m and it will be televised on the Pac-12 Network.
Candrea would like to see his team make one adjustment before the first pitch is thrown.
“Bring some more energy,” he said. “A little more sense of urgency.”
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