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Alyssa Palomino enjoying switch to first base after ACL injury

The former outfielder has been better than ever this season, despite coming off a second knee injury

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Alyssa Palomino was away from the action last postseason, now she is a little too close to it.

After tearing her ACL last May — an injury that forced her to miss the last few weeks of the 2017 season — the former center-fielder now starts at first base for the Arizona Wildcats.

That’s a mere 60 feet from home plate.

“At first, it was definitely scary. I’m a lot closer than I’d like to be sometimes,” Palomino said of her new position. “But a big thing was getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and I think that’s definitely what I did. And being able to step up anyway that I could, it’s been fun.”

The move to first was made partly because of Palomino’s injury history — she has suffered two ACL tears in as many years — but also because of the Wildcats’ need at the position.

Jessie Harper, who played first in 2017, shifted to her natural position of shortstop to make up for the loss of Mo Mercado.

Palomino said she is an “outfielder at heart,” but is enjoying her new spot.

“Getting to be next to Taylor (McQuillin) and listen to all the pitchers and being able to be a pump-up for them and getting to know new things, it’s been pretty fun,” she said.

Not only does Palomino play a new position, her place in the batting order has changed, too.

The lefty’s raw power — Palomino launched 16 homers last year and has 11 this year — suggests she would be best served in the middle of the order, and that’s where she hit last year, but now she is thriving at the top of the lineup card.

The redshirt sophomore is batting .438/.522/.854 with 11 homers, seven doubles, and 24 RBIs this season. It’s been the best year of her career at the dish, and Arizona coach Mike Candrea said Palomino has been “very good” at first where she’s committed two errors in 33 games.

“Honestly, I think it’s just confidence and going out there and not thinking about anything else when I’m playing,” she said of the key to her success. “Coach always tells us to be where your feet are, and I think that’s a lot of what I think about. Just be in the moment that I’m in, and that’s been working for me.”

Palomino got off to a slow start, but caught fire when she was moved to the lead-off spot. In a 13-game span, she hit .475 with a .563 on-base percentage.

Initially, Palomino wasn’t comfortable leading off, but it’s clearly a role she’s well-suited for. And she’s done it before, albeit at a lower level.

“I did it all four years of high school, so I kind of knew what it was like leading off, and stepping into that role has been fun and I’m starting to like leading off,” she said.

Candrea has been impressed with Palomino’s patience. She has coaxed 16 walks and only struck out 12 times.

“Definitely now I think 60 feet,” she said. “I don’t think home run. … I just know as the lead-off batter I have to get on anyway I can. A walk, a single, a double, anything to get me on base. It’s just something that I think about. Finding something that I want to hit and keeping it simple in the batter’s box.

“I definitely know I need to see pitches. That way I can tell our batters what (the pitcher is) throwing, where it’s going.”

Palomino was moved down to the No. 2 spot in favor of Ashleigh Hughes this past weekend against Cal, but that had more to do with the team’s usual-No. 2 hitter, Reyna Carranco, being out with a broken nose and concussion.

Even so, Palomino knocked four hits, including two homers, in the three-game sweep. Sometimes it’s easy to forget she’s coming off knee surgery and still isn’t fully healthy.

“We’re getting there definitely,” she said. “I started playing seven months out of surgery and I’m now nine months out of surgery with a year recovery time. I have my days where my knee gets swollen and it hurts, but it’s just something I have to push through, and it’s something that I have been pushing through, and it gets easier every day.”

“They don’t put a barometer on a kid,” Candrea said, “so you don’t know where they’re at, but I think watching her compete, I like what I see. She’s playing the game hard, playing it aggressive. I’m sure it’s going to take a while to get her 100 percent, but that probably won’t happen for a year from now.”

Palomino said she won’t allow herself to think about how her knee will hold up if she tries to make a leaping catch or turn on an inside fastball. She is too busy making up for lost time.

Last May, she had to sit and watch from the dugout as the Wildcats fell one win shy of the College World Series.

This year, she is determined to get them over the hump.

“Coming off my first ACL, I was ready to play, ready to go, and just like the season before, it ended,” she said. “It was hard because I knew I could have contributed, but this year I can’t think about that.

“It’s about pushing forward and taking this team to Oklahoma City and seeing what we can do there.”


Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire