Arizona softball has not faced an unranked team since March 18, but that will mercifully change Wednesday when it hosts New Mexico State in a mid-week doubleheader.
It’s a much-needed break from the meat-grinder that is the Pac-12. The Wildcats (27-12, 6-9 Pac-12) have lost six straight games, being swept by No. 5 Oregon then No. 4 UCLA in consecutive weekends.
What is most concerning is the Wildcats haven’t been competitive. They were outscored 23-2 by the Ducks and 24-12 by the Bruins.
And Arizona head coach Mike Candrea isn’t exactly optimistic about his team’s outlook.
“I don’t have any answers right now other than we just got our butts handed to us,” he said after Sunday’s 10-3 loss to the Bruins.
“We’re not in a good place right now. The only thing I can say in a positive note is that we have games left to play, and hopefully we’ll find a way to get it turned around because it’s, to me, it’s called the grind and some years you don’t go through that. I thought last year we kind of had a fairy-tale season until it all crashed until the end.
“So sometimes when you have this happen to you in the middle of the season, you learn from it and make some adjustments from it. The biggest thing right now is we’re not seeing the adjustments that you need. We’ve got some soul-searching to do and some kids need to take a look at what they’re doing right now and why it’s not working and how (they are) going to fix it, instead of going out and continuing to do the same thing over and over again. Unfortunately that’s kind of where we’re at.
“And they’re very fragile kids. It’s a different generation. I’ve tried about everything. From being nice to them, to getting in their face. I thought we had a really good discussion last night and I expected us to play the game well and we started off that way. But the minute that something happens, we just have a hard time competing the way we need to.”
Arizona’s biggest issue is its pitching. In her last four starts, ace Taylor McQuillin is 0-4 with a 8.26 ERA in 20.1 innings. She’s walked 17 and given up eight home runs.
In all, the Wildcats have surrendered 7.8 runs per game during its six-game skid.
“This game unfortunately permeates from the circle out,” Candrea said. “And that’s what’s happening right now. We don’t have the stability that you need to compete at this level.”
But it’s not like Arizona has been tearing the covering off the ball, either. In the UCLA series, it was just 4-for-22 with runners in scoring position.
“Some of our kids just get in their heads so damn much that they have a hard time functioning against good pitching,” Candrea said.
And that is all the Wildcats have been facing lately. Washington, Oregon, and UCLA — who Arizona is 0-9 against — all have elite pitching staffs.
What Arizona will face Wednesday against New Mexico State (23-16, 8-1 WAC) isn’t nearly on that same level. The Aggies’ ERA is 3.77 this season, but they have won eight of their first nine conference games.
Arizona hasn’t won since March.
“I think we’re at a place right now where we have to figure out how to put all the pieces together,” said senior outfielder Ashleigh Hughes. “Good teams win offensively, defensively, and their pitching comes through. ... Right now, all of our pieces are not together.”
The first game of Wednesday’s doubleheader is scheduled for 4 p.m. at Hillenbrand Stadium. The second game will start immediately following the conclusion of the first (roughly 6 p.m.).
Then Arizona will head to Tempe for a three-game series against No. 8 ASU, starting Friday.
But there’s no reason to look ahead.
“New Mexico State’s going to give us everything what we want [and more],” Candrea said. “They’re a good team and truthfully right now we’re not playing well. ... I don’t know what we can do to ignite any fires. It’s gotta come from within.”
Candrea has been constantly shuffling Arizona’s lineup the last several games, and one bright spot has emerged at the bottom of the order: designated player Ivy Davis.
Davis started in the last two games of the UCLA series and went 2-for-6, including a game-tying two-run homer in the second inning of Sunday’s series finale.
“She did a good job,” Candrea said. “And that’s the thing, in batting practice she’s been squaring the ball up as well as anyone, so I said what the hell, let’s give her a chance. And she stepped in and did a good job. I like what I saw out of her. She didn’t backdown to anyone. She took healthy cuts.”
Davis, a switch-hitting freshman is batting .316/.300/.579 in 19 at-bats this season.
“Seeing live (pitching) is obviously a little bit harder, but practicing all the time, we’re always ready to go in, we’re always thinking we’re going to go in,” she said of her recent uptick in playing time. “So it’s not too big of a jump, but it’s different.”
Youth is showing...
Arizona’s inability to handle adversity can partly be attributed to its youth. The Wildcats’ entire infield, while talented, is comprised of sophomores.
In the outfield, they start at least one freshman — Jenna Kean or Carli Campbell — and now Davis is getting a bulk of the at-bats at DP.
In the circle, McQuillin is a junior, but Alyssa Denham is a sophomore and Hanah Bowen is a freshman.
“Our sophomores are very talented,” said Hughes, one of two starting seniors. “We have a very talented sophomore class. I do think part of it is being young and finding a way to compete regardless of the situation. Yeah I think we’re young at that. For sure.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire