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Arizona softball: Wildcats ‘look like a different team’ in Tucson Regional with improved short game

Arizona traded power for speed in the first weekend of postseason play

Eva Watson (pictured) has filled in nicely for the injured Alyssa Palomino
Jason Bartel

It wasn’t the answer one would expect.

When South Carolina head coach Beverly Smith was asked what makes the Arizona Wildcats — who lead the nation in homers and have an elite pitching staff — so difficult to beat, Smith pointed to their slap-hitters and short game.

“I thought their slappers and short game is really what won the games for them,” she said after Arizona beat the Gamecocks 9-0 to win the Tucson Regional.

“Their slappers are just tough outs and their speed puts pressure on you.”

But she isn’t exactly wrong.

It was the Wildcats’ slappers (along with strong pitching) that doomed the Gamecocks in Sunday’s regional final.

Arizona’s 7-8-9 hitters went 8 for 9 with three RBIs, a walk, two stolen bases, and three runs scored.

Only two of the Wildcats’ nine runs came via the long ball, and even those were courtesy of a slapper (lead-off hitter Mandie Perez).

It was a similar story when Arizona beat South Carolina on Saturday, too. Arizona notched five runs with just one being the product of a homer.

In total, only eight of Arizona’s 25 runs in the Tucson Regional were generated by homers.

Instead, aggressive baserunning, infield singles, and timely two-out hits were the name of the game for the Wildcats’ offense.

“We look like a different team right now,” Arizona head coach Mike Candrea said. “We went from a bunch of bashers to the short game again and that’s kinda what happens in postseason.”

Not that he minds.

“The thing I was ecstatic about is the way we created runs,” Candrea said. “I don’t think anyone was expecting that from Arizona. I think they were looking for us to hit home runs and live and die by home runs, but this weekend we showed ourselves that we can score many different ways, and we did a very nice job of scoring with two outs.”

Having a reliable short game is crucial in the postseason, Candrea notes. Top-tier pitching can — and usually does — stifle comparable hitting.

It can’t stymie small ball, though.

“The speed and the short game will always be there,” Candrea said.

And Arizona’s seemingly sudden shift away from being a home-run heavy team does make some sense, considering a recent lineup change it was forced to make.

Wildcats center fielder Alyssa Palomino, who tore her ACL last week, has been replaced by Eva Watson.

The two bring vastly different skill-sets to the table.

Palomino is a power-hitter who smacked 16 homers this season and resided in the middle of the order. Watson is a slap-hitter who is the team’s fastest player and bats ninth.

With that, it means the Wildcats now have three slappers at the end of their batting order (and one fewer power hitter in the middle of it).

“I think it’s probably tough for the defense to have three lefty slappers in a row,” said Reyna Carranco, who bats seventh. “So I like it a lot.”

Candrea has to as well.

Here’s how Arizona’s trio of slap-hitters performed in the Tucson Regional:

  • Reyna Carranco — 7 for 10, three runs, two RBIs, one walk
  • Ashleigh Hughes — 4 for 8, one run, one RBI, one walk
  • Eva Watson — 4 for 6, four runs, two stolen bases

“That’s pretty good,” Candrea joked after reading off the stats. “You’re going to win a lot of games that way.”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire