Entering the 2018 season, the Arizona Wildcats had to find a way to replace Pac-12 all-time home run leader Katiyana Mauga at third base.
That’s no easy task — Mauga launched 25 homers and drove in 50 runs a season ago.
But Malia Martinez is quickly proving to be a capable fill-in. The sophomore is batting .405 this season with three homers, five doubles, and 16 RBIs.
“Fabulous,” said head coach Mike Candrea, who awarded Martinez the gold jersey in practice this week. “She spent her time behind Kati, has gotten an opportunity, and has swung the bat well, played good defense. Couldn’t ask for something more.”
But early on, it looked like Martinez was overwhelmed by her new role as UA’s starting third baseman. She went 1-for-14 at the plate to start the season.
Since then, however, she has been lacing the ball all over the ballpark.
Martinez has 29 hits in her last 60 at-bats, and has at least one hit in 13 of UA’s last 14 games, including a pair of 4-for-4 games, the only four-hit games this season by any Wildcat.
“This is a game of confidence,” said Candrea, who recently moved Martinez up to fifth in the batting order. “It’s hard to get confidence in this game because it’s a game of failure. But once you have it, you tend to be able to slow the game down, see the ball a little bit bigger. ... I’m extremely pleased with where she’s at.
“She’s worked extremely hard, made a little adjustment with getting her hands a little stronger, and Malia’s got a really efficient swing. She’s really short from point A to point B, and so when she can square the barrel up, when she’s hitting the ball to right-center field, you know she’s seeing it well and her timing is good and that’s the biggest thing with her right now — she’s been on time and she’s taking advantage of some good pitches and hitting them hard.”
Malia Martinez doubles home Dejah Mulipola and we're on the board! It's 3-1 in the bottom of the fourth. Malia's on second with no one out. pic.twitter.com/93T8IwdnrA— Arizona Softball (@ArizonaSoftball) March 18, 2018
Martinez said she learned a lot playing behind Mauga last season, including the mindset needed to succeed at the collegiate level — taking things one day at a time and not dwelling on failure.
“She was one of the best in the game and learning behind her was definitely big,” Martinez said. “Physically, everyone is so much better, but the mental side is huge in college. Especially with better pitching.”
The home-run-hitting Mauga had a powerful swing, yes, but also a sharp mind and a quality plate approach.
“You have to have a little bit of short-term memory and you gotta be able to have a plan,” Candrea said. “Kati I thought had a high softball IQ, so she was a very good hitter for a lot of reasons. One was her ability to sit on particular zones, particular pitches and when she got that pitch she could cash in on it.
“I think Malia offensively probably learned a lot from a lot of different players. But defensively I think Kati being with her every day helped her.”
Martinez only got 19 at-bats as a freshman last season as she backed up Mauga, and admitted not playing was “not really the best feeling.”
But Martinez knew her time would come, and that there was still plenty to gain from being a reserve.
“I understood my place at the time,” she said. “I just wanted to help out where I could. Being able to take that year and just learn I thought was huge.”
Martinez is now putting what she learned into action, and the Wildcats, who are ranked ninth in the country and 3-0 in the Pac-12, are in good hands at the hot corner once again.
“I think that’s what a good program is all about,” Candrea said. “A lot of freshmen walk in here and think ‘God, I gotta play or something’s wrong.’
“And really that’s not the case. Sometimes it’s just part of the process.”