Since Arizona’s 2017 season ended in late-inning heartbreak, its motto this season is to finish games strong — grab a lead and keep it, or make a late push in a comeback effort.
But sometimes that is easier said than done, as evidenced last weekend in Seattle against No. 1 Washington.
Arizona held a one-run lead in the sixth inning in games one and two of the series, but wound up losing both in walk-off fashion in extras, before dropping the third game, 2-0.
The Wildcats were handed three losses by a total of four runs, and now sit in fifth in the Pac-12, despite sweeping Utah to begin conference play.
“That was a tough weekend,” Arizona head coach Mike Candrea said. “I knew we were going to have some adversity with the weather. It was in the 30s Friday with the wind blowing, but we played well enough to win. We could have won every game we were in, we just could not get the key stop when we needed it. Sometimes you can’t get the key hit. Well, this time we just couldn’t get the key stop when we needed to.”
Maybe it had something to do with the team’s youth — Arizona only starts two seniors and mostly relies on sophomores — but mostly the Wildcats think it was just bad luck.
“I think sometimes the softball gods don’t fall your way,” said UA left-hander Taylor McQuillin, who was tagged with the loss in all three games of the series. “And I think it’s part of the game. It happens.”
Which is why the 11th-ranked Wildcats (24-6, 3-3 Pac-12) aren’t panicking as they head into a three-game home series against the No. 22 California Golden Bears.
“Our team can definitely hang with the best of them,” said UA first baseman Alyssa Palomino, who is hitting .475 in her last 13 games. “That was the No. 1 team in the nation and we stuck with them. … It’s definitely a learning experience knowing that we can hang with good teams like that, we just have to keep pushing.”
Cal (24-8, 1-5 Pac-12) enters Thursday’s series-opener coming off a miserable weekend of its own. The Bears were swept at home by ASU and, like Arizona, lost two games in extra innings.
Cal features a 1-2 punch of Kalamani Lung (14-1, 1.69 ERA) and Zoe Conley (10-7, 2.26 ERA), who are holding opponents to a .200 batting average this season.
They are buoyed by an offense that leads the Pac-12 in stolen bases and relies on the short game to pump out runs. The Bears have hit half as many homers as Arizona this season (21).
“Cal’s a good team,” Candrea said. “If you look at the Pac-12, every team is good. So you gotta come and bring your A-game, you gotta play the game well, you gotta pitch well, you gotta play good defense, and you gotta hit. And I don’t think that will change any week from here on out. That’s what softball’s all about.
“But it seems like this year that there’s a pretty good stable of pitchers in the Pac-12 that are having some success, so therefore you’ve got to work twice as hard and in the games there becomes a much finer edge between winning and losing. It’s either get the key hit or get the key stop. That becomes very important so we hope that we can use our home-field advantage, make it an advantage, and we’re working hard to try to get our kids offensively to be a little more aggressive. We took a lot of good pitches at Washington.”
Arizona has one of the better offenses in the Pac-12 — it is third nationally in home runs per game (1.40) — but it was limited to just four runs against Washington.
UA’s pitching staff allowed eight — normally a solid number against the nation’s No. 1 team — but half were scored in the sixth inning or later, leading to blown leads and subsequently a three-game losing streak.
Now the reigning conference champions have to prevent that from snowballing into something much worse.
“We can’t let up just because we had a rough weekend,” McQuillin said. “The past is the past and we gotta move on because we’re not going to see any light games for the rest of the season. As the road keeps going, it’s just going to be harder and harder.
“This year’s motto is to finish and that’s kind of thing that had lacked last weekend. We were so close, but we didn’t emphasis the finish. We knew it was there, but we didn’t really capitalize on it. That’s something that we have to start doing and continue doing throughout the rest of the season.”
Maybe Arizona would have won game two against Washington if not for a late pitching change.
Candrea swapped Alyssa Denham for McQuillin as the Wildcats nursed a 3-2 lead at the start of the sixth inning, and McQuillin served up a game-tying homer to the first batter she faced. Eventually the Wildcats fell in eight innings.
Denham had tossed four scoreless innings after surrendering two first-inning runs, but Candrea still believes McQuillin was the better option in the late goings.
“They were starting to square some balls up, and you’re sitting there with your ace with a one-run lead with two innings to go,” he explained. “I have a lot of confidence in (McQuillin) and felt that if you look at the numbers, that was the right thing to do. It just didn’t work out, and I haven’t thought any more of it.”
UA second baseman Reyna Carranco is unlikely to play this weekend, as she continues to recover from a concussion and facial fracture she suffered Friday in Seattle when she was struck in the face by a 70 MPH fastball.
“Reyna is going to see a doctor (Thursday) and has got a fracture,” Candrea said. “And we’ll just take it day to day from there.”
The left-handed-hitting Carranco, who usually bats second, has been a staple of Arizona’s lineup this season, hitting .388 with two homers, eight doubles, and 21 RBIs.
Ashleigh Hughes, who normally plays center field, started at second Saturday. Then Hanah Bowen, who doubles as Arizona’s No. 3 pitcher, started at second Sunday.
“The opening at second base definitely affects what we do,” Candrea said. “You lose a kid like Reyna, she’s hitting .400, you hate to lose someone like that offensively. But we have some kids that are ready to step in and we’re just going to have to try to put the pieces together that we can to be successful that day. It could be a variety of people. It could be Ivy Davis, it could be Hanah Bowen, it could be putting Ashleigh Hughes out there.”
Arizona-Cal series schedule
Game 1 — Thursday, 6 p.m. PT
Game 2 — Friday, 6 p.m. PT
Game 3 — Saturday, 12 p.m. PT
All three games will be live streamed here.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire