The Arizona Wildcats’ losing streak extended to five Saturday as they dropped another home game to No. 4 UCLA, 7-3.
Afterward, the Wildcats huddled on the outfield grass for 30 minutes. Head coach Mike Candrea talked, and talked, and talked. The players listened, their faces stone cold.
His speech was long, but the message was simple.
“That we’re so close,” said UA right-hander Alyssa Denham, who allowed four runs (two earned) in six innings in the loss. “That ... when we put all the pieces together we’re not going to be able to be stopped.”
But that’s the thing — the Wildcats can’t put the pieces together. They haven’t been able to get that key hit and/or those key outs during their losing streak.
Arizona has allowed at least seven runs in each of the last four games, which has been too much for its sporadic offense to overcome.
And even when the Wildcats pitch well, their offense can’t give them a comfortable cushion.
Denham cruised through the first three innings of Saturday’s game, and the Wildcats had a one-run lead heading into the fourth.
They should have been up by more. Arizona had the bases loaded with nobody out in the third but could only scratch out one run — a sacrifice fly by Alyssa Palomino.
An inning later, Arizona put two runners in scoring position with nobody out, but stranded both.
Eventually, Arizona’s pitching faltered and those offensive miscues were exacerbated. UCLA scored two runs in the fourth, fifth, and sixth to take a four-run lead and the second game of the series.
The Bruins were 4-for-10 with runners in scoring position. The Wildcats were 1-for-9. That was the difference.
“When you face good hitters, they start adjusting,” Denham said. “And it’s (about) not letting them take advantage of your missed pitches and that’s what they did tonight. They’re going to get hits and they’re going to score runs, but it’s being able to control that and not let it get out of hand.”
It did and has been far too often lately.
Friday, Arizona held a 4-2 lead in the sixth before UCLA exploded for five runs in the final two frames.
Arizona gave that game away, Candrea said.
Three weeks ago, the Wildcats were swept at Washington, despite holding a one-run lead in the sixth in two of the games.
The Huskies were the No. 1 team in the country, and the Wildcats were this close to beating them on their home turf. Twice.
Instead, they lost both those games in walk-off fashion and all three by a total of four runs — a season-changing result.
“I really felt we should have won, could have won” that series, Candrea said.
The Wildcats are 6-8 in the Pac-12, tied with Oregon State for fifth place. If they could play a complete game? They could very well be 9-5 or 8-6 and still in the hunt for a Pac-12 title.
But the divide between them and the conference’s best teams — Oregon, Washington, UCLA — is growing.
“We’re playing top-five teams right now and they’re top-five for a reason,” Candrea said. “They have a lot of pieces to the puzzle and right now the pieces are there (for us), we’re just not putting it all [together].”
Catcher Dejah Mulipola thinks the Wildcats’ youth has something to do with it — they only start two seniors and mostly rely on sophomores — but Candrea is still searching for an answer. He has been shuffling Arizona’s lineup all throughout its five-game losing streak.
“That’s the million dollar question,” he said. “We’re competing very well in spots, but we’re not putting it all together. ... To win at this level, you have to pitch well, you have to play good defense, and you have to hit well.
“I’m seeing bits and pieces of all that, but we have to put it all together to be a team that will compete down the road.”
Down the road as in... next season? Next week? Next game?
Maybe that will become clearer Sunday when Arizona gets another crack at the fourth-ranked Bruins.
Candrea wouldn’t call it a must-win game, but with the team’s confidence waning it is a must-play-well game.
“I’m not worried about anything right now other than us getting all three aspects of the game together,” he said. “I want to come out and pitch well, hit well, and play good defense and whatever happens, happens.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire