The Arizona Wildcats had not beaten a team above them in the Pac-12 standings all season heading into Friday’s series opener against No. 4 UCLA.
They were 0-6.
Now they’re 0-7.
The Bruins scored two runs in the sixth and three runs in the seventh to beat No. 12 Arizona 7-6 on a cold, windy night at Hillenbrand Stadium.
It’s the Wildcats’ fourth straight loss. They were swept by then-No. 5 Oregon last weekend in Eugene, and were hoping to bounce back at home where they had lost just once all season entering Friday’s series-opener, but to no avail.
“It’s just finding a way to finish the job,” Arizona coach Mike Candrea said of his team’s recent struggles. “We’re trying to put our finger on it right now. This whole week we talked about confidence and the things you need to do to come out and play your best softball. And for the most part I think we did a good job of preparing. ... This is just one of those games that you gave away.”
The Wildcats were in good shape heading into the sixth.
They led 4-2 after Jessie Harper and Malia Martinez hit back-to-back, two-out RBI doubles in the fifth, and Taylor McQuillin retired the first Bruin she faced in the sixth.
Then Arizona made a costly defensive miscue.
Three UA defenders watched as a towering popup landed between them on the outfield grass just behind second base.
That put the tying run on first with one out and the very next batter, Rachel Garcia, lined a two-run homer to right-center to make it 4-all.
Garcia had already homered in the second to put UCLA ahead 1-0. Candrea said McQuillin was having difficulty keeping her pitches down in the zone.
“What can happen right now lately has been happening,” Candrea said of his team’s late-game scuffles. “I don’t have any answers for it.”
The Bruins solved McQuillin as the night progressed, scoring at least one run in each of the final three innings.
In all, the junior left-hander surrendered six walks and nine hits, including three homers.
UCLA strung five hits together in the seventh, allowing it to plate three runs. And it needed every single one of them as UA first baseman Alyssa Palomino roped a two-run homer in the bottom of the seventh to cut into the Bruins’ lead.
“I think they adjusted a little bit,” McQuillin said of UCLA’s late surge. “All good teams adjust to good pitching. I think that I didn’t come out and finish as strong as I could’ve.
“[My teammates] did put up the run support that we needed and they came out strong today, so I have to be a little stronger for them in the end.”
The Wildcats fell behind in the second when Garcia lined a solo homer to right center, but they jumped ahead in strange fashion a half-inning later.
Martinez appeared to ground out to begin the frame, but an illegal pitch was called, which kept her at-bat alive, and she would draw a walk on the next pitch.
Dejah Mulipola then ripped a comebacker that struck UCLA right-hander Selina Ta’amilo’s left wrist for a single.
Ta’amilo, flustered in pain, collected the deflected ball and fired an errant, underhand throw toward first but it skipped past the first baseman, putting Martinez and Mulipola in scoring position.
After a lengthy injury delay — which led to a few grumbles from the Arizona crowd — Ta’amilo was relieved by Garcia (yes, the same one that homered twice), and Aleah Craighton immediately drove in Martinez with a sacrifice fly to right.
Garcia then soared a wild pitch to the backstop to score Mulipola.
Arizona wasted a golden opportunity to tack on an insurance run in the fourth, stranding Mulipola after a leadoff triple.
That quickly came back to haunt them as UCLA’s Madeline Jelenicki launched a game-tying homer with one out in the fifth, which was only the beginning of UCLA’s rally.
“For a lot of our kids, it’s just a matter of understanding when a game gets in those situations, the adrenaline gets up and the game speeds up a little bit and the sign of players that can handle that is the maturity level,” Candrea said.
“We’ve got to keep going through the process and go through those. It’s tough to go through but hopefully down the road it will pay dividends for us, because there’s no other way to teach it. You’re going to be in tough ballgames and you’ve got to learn to execute in tight situations and trust your and slow the game down instead of letting it get quick on you.”
McQuillin’s ERA has nearly doubled from 0.89 to 1.65 during Arizona’s four-game losing streak, and she has been tagged with three losses during that span.
So pitching coach Taryne Mowatt pulled her aside after Friday’s game and offered some words of encouragement.
McQuillin had a smile on her face after the discussion ended.
“As much as the first game matters, sometimes it doesn’t because you still have an opportunity to come back and win the series with the next two games,” she said. “So brush this one behind us and move to the next day.”
The Wildcats are now 27-10 overall and 6-7 in the Pac-12, placing the defending champions in fifth in the conference standings.
A repeat is looking unlikelier and unlikelier by the game, and they will look to avoid a fifth straight loss Saturday at 7 p.m. PT on the Pac-12 Networks.
“All I know is that you have to keep putting on the uniform and coming out and competing,” Candrea said. “One of these days we’re going to turn this thing around and finish the job the way we’re supposed to, and maybe that will be the end-all.”
Reyna Carranco must be a ball magnet or something.
The UA second baseman was beaned on the arm with one out in the fifth. She was a little shaken up and coaches and trainers would attend to her after she took first base, but she would stay in the game, steal second, and then score on Harper’s go-ahead double.
In the seventh, she laced a double down the left-field line before Palomino’s two-run shot.
This was just three weeks after Carranco took a pitch to the face, which left her with a concussion, broken nose, and facial fracture.
Carranco missed five straight games before returning last Friday at Oregon. Candrea said seeing the sophomore get hit by another pitch Friday was scary.
“But then she stepped up the last inning and got the base hit,” he said. “She’s a tough cookie. ... She’s trying to bounce back and the last thing you need her to do is get that thought in her mind again.
“But ... Reyna is a flatliner and she just gets it done.”
Carranco’s .366 batting average is the second-best on the team.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire