The left field wall at Hillenbrand Stadium is 200 feet from home plate.
A ball off Ashleigh Hughes’ bat traveled 199, but made it over the fence anyway, and the ninth-inning home run propelled No. 11 Arizona to a 3-2 walk-off win over No. 22 Cal.
“It was a good victory. We’ll take them any way we can,” said UA head coach Mike Candrea. “I mean, a 199-foot home run, haven’t seen one of those in a while, but we’ll take it.”
Hughes drove the first pitch she saw deep to left, though Cal’s Bradie Fillmore appeared to have a beat on it as she neared the warning track.
But when she reached up to make the grab, the ball popped in and out of her glove before trickling over the fence.
Hughes, who was rounding first, wasn’t sure what to think, but pretty soon she was celebrating with her teammates at home plate.
“I had no idea if she had caught it or not,” Hughes said. “I actually stopped, like did she catch it, did she not catch it? Then Coach was like ‘come on!’ and I was like, ‘oh, cool!’”
“I saw it caught,” Candrea said, “and then I saw the ball flipping up and over the fence. I was quite happy.”
Ashleigh Hughes on her walk-off HR that tipped off the left fielder’s glove: “I had no idea if she had caught it or not.” pic.twitter.com/1Y2f14HsfK— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) March 31, 2018
The Wildcats lost two games in walk-off fashion last weekend at No. 1 Washington, so they were glad to be on the winning end of one this time.
“Sometimes you feel good when you’re the home team and that’s the reason why right there,” said Candrea, whose team has won 15 of 16 at home this season.
Taylor McQuillin, who was coming off a one-hit shutout, kept Arizona in the game once again.
The left-hander surrendered two unearned runs on seven hits and two walks, while striking out 12, as she picked up her NCAA-leading 18th win.
McQuillin threw 94 pitches Thursday and a whopping 153 on Friday, but showed no signs of fatigue, holding the Bears scoreless over the final six frames.
“We have to be happy,” Candrea said. “She’s probably going to throw in two games, three games anyway. I just felt tonight under the lights and with all lefties they have, I thought it was the right matchup. They hit her a little better tonight, but she still had them in check pretty good.”
Arizona provided her some early run support. Alyssa Palomino homered to right in the first inning and Jenna Kean picked up her third RBI of the series on a fielder’s choice in the second. But Cal tied the game in the third, thanks to a pair of Wildcat errors.
A swinging bunt then a mishandled sacrifice bunt put Bears on the corners to begin the frame. One of those runners later scored on a fielder’s choice; the other scored on an error by Hughes.
With one out and runners on first and second, Hughes corralled a grounder up the middle and tagged the runner advancing to second.
But the ball was jarred loose after the tag and skipped into the outfield, allowing Cal’s Jazmyn Jackson to score from second.
Cal threatened again in the fourth and the ninth, but McQuillin twice was able to strand two runners.
The Bears were 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position. Arizona was just 1-for-8.
“We had a little inning there where the short-game almost beat us, not taking care of the ball, but I’ve got to give it to Taylor,” Candrea said. “She hung in there and did a good job and kept us in the ballgame. We had some chances along the way, we just couldn’t get the key hit.”
One those chances came in the bottom of the eighth. Tamara Statman drew a two-out walk, Aleah Craighton roped a single to left, then pinch-hitter Joelle Krist coaxed another walk to load the bases.
Hillary Edior pinch hit for Kean, but she struck out to end the rally. Candrea believes those high-leverage situations can be used as a teaching point moving forward.
“The at-bats in pressure situations are something that you cannot duplicate,” he said. “So I think tonight with Joelle coming in and having a good AB told me a lot about her. Hillary on the other hand, I thought the game got a little quick on her and she’s gotta go through that to understand that. You talk about that throughout the week, but truthfully that’s when it gets exposed. And having crucial at-bats in crucial situations, we have to get better at that.”
But it certainly was no problem for Hughes, whose walk-off blast gave the Wildcats (26-6, 5-3 Pac-12) their second straight win.
They will go for the sweep of the Bears on Saturday at noon.
“My hat goes off to this team tonight,” Candrea said. “Just fighting and clawing and Taylor hanging in there. It’s really easy for a pitcher, when your offense is struggling, to start struggling and she did the opposite. She went out there and shut them down and I just felt like it was a matter of time before we would make something happen. But I did not imagine it would end that way.”
Mike Candrea on the 3-2 walk-off win vs. No. 22 Cal: “It was a good victory. We’ll take them any way we can. I mean, a 199-foot home run, haven’t seen one of those in a while. But we’ll take it.” pic.twitter.com/gNCJlmxg95— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) March 31, 2018
That new slap rule...
For the second night in a row, a Wildcat was called out because of the new slap-hitting rule.
The rule, put into effect this season, prohibits batters from having any part of their foot touch the ground outside the lines of the batter’s box when bat-ball contact is made.
If a batter violates the rule, it’s an out.
Kean was called out Thursday and Carli Campbell was called out Friday in the fourth inning. Campbell’s violation couldn’t have come at a worse time. The freshman stepped to the plate with one out and two runners on in a tie game.
Candrea thinks the rule could be reversed as early as next season.
Carranco returns to the bench
After having successful surgery Thursday, UA second baseman Reyna Carranco re-joined the Wildcats for Friday’s contest.
The sophomore, donning street clothes and a bandage on her nose, received a nice ovation from the home crowd during pre-game intros.
Carranco suffered a concussion and facial fracture last weekend after taking a 70 MPH fastball to the face.
Candrea said Carranco played catch Friday, but her return date is still unclear.
“I think she’s progressing very well,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll get her back for practice next week, put a mask on her and she what she can do. It’s something that you can’t really force the speed of that return because there’s some things she’s going to have to get over. So she’s going to need some at-bats, some ground balls.
“But Reyna is a flatliner and I think that might be a good thing for her. She’s got great hands, she’s never had to worry about a ball hitting her defensively. But I’m sure she’ll have a little bit of anxiety the first time she walks into the batter’s box and someone’s throwing 70 miles an hour.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire