Are the Arizona Wildcats ready to make a late-season run?
They’ve been giving off mixed signals lately.
Arizona won a huge road series at then-No. 8 ASU last weekend, which were its first Pac-12 road wins all season. The Wildcats’ pitching was strong, their offense was opportunistic, and their defense was stellar. Perhaps most importantly, there was a renewed display of energy and confidence.
But that all seemed to be reversed Wednesday when the Wildcats had an “ASU hangover” and limped past a weak New Mexico team. Arizona had four hits, two errors, and some egregious baserunning errors in a 3-1 win.
“The thing that is disappointing to me is we worked so hard to get the momentum that we had after that weekend,” head coach Mike Candrea said.
Candrea thought his team was complacent against New Mexico, which entered with a 12-31 record.
“Every game that you play should be a big game. That’s what great teams do,” he said. “Great teams play themselves. And so the standard that you set yourself is the standard that you have all the time no matter who you’re playing. So hopefully that’s a lesson for this group and they’ll learn from it.”
We’ll find out this weekend if they have. Arizona is set to host Oregon State for a three-game series.
The Beavers (26-19, 7-8 Pac-12) are a spot ahead of the Wildcats (32-13, 8-10) in the conference standings, and are capable of beating anybody, as evidenced by their victories over ASU and Oregon.
Friday and Saturday’s games start at 6 p.m. PT while Sunday’s series-finale begins at noon. All three games will be live streamed here.
What to watch for
Kean’s new role
UA outfielder Ashleigh Hughes is sidelined indefinitely with a broken hand, and Jenna Kean is the one tasked with replacing her.
The freshman hit in the leadoff spot for the first time Wednesday, going 1-for-3 with a stolen base. It was mostly a positive start, though Candrea wasn’t pleased that she failed to move Carli Campbell to second after Campbell led off the fifth with a single.
Hughes might not play again this season, so Kean will need to finish the year strong if the Wildcats plan to make any noise in the postseason.
The left-handed outfielder is hitting .236/.295/.291 in 55 at-bats. She was the No. 44 recruit out of high school, per FloSoftball.
It took a while for Arizona to settle on its designated player, but Ivy Davis has taken ahold of that spot.
The freshman has only started in 11 games this year, but has made eight straight starts entering Friday’s series-opener.
Davis has been a feast-or-famine player. She has four hits in 18 at-bats in those eight starts, but three were homers. She’s another player who will need to produce now that Hughes is out.
“It’s tough. It definitely is,” Davis said of Hughes’ absence. “We all know anyone can make a difference at anytime, so it’s important that everyone contributes.”
The middle riddle
Arizona’s offense as a whole can be described as feast or famine these days.
The Wildcats are second nationally in home runs per game, averaging 1.31 per contest — first baseman Alyssa Palomino leads the conference with 15 and shortstop Jessie Harper is tied for second with 13 — but their offense ranks tied for fifth in the Pac-12 in runs scored.
The main issue has been hitting with runners in scoring position and making adjustments as the game wears on.
They also have hitters prone to streakiness. Malia Martinez and Dejah Mulipola have combined for just three hits in the last five games, for instance — and that was after Mulipola had eight hits in a five-game stretch.
Arizona’s middle of the order was 0-for-12 against New Mexico on Wednesday, and it will need to be much more productive to come away with wins against Oregon State, which doesn’t have a great pitching staff (relatively speaking).
The Beavers are seventh in the Pac-12 in ERA (2.51).
Home sweet home
The Wildcats are 19-4 at home this season, as Hillenbrand Stadium has proven to be a safe haven.
But sometimes it can be a curse, as its notoriety makes it an exciting place to play for visiting teams.
“When people come into Hillenbrand they’re going to give you their best shot,” Candrea explained.
That was true Wednesday when a struggling New Mexico team gave the 10th-ranked Wildcats all they could handle.
“Normally it should work the opposite,” Candrea said. “To me, playing here is worth a run (for us) if you are willing to be ready to go when the first pitch is thrown.”
It starts in the circle
Despite everything that has already been mentioned, success in softball starts in the circle.
And Arizona’s three-game winning streak is concurrent with strong outings by Taylor McQuillin and Alyssa Denham.
McQuillin gave up four runs in 14.2 innings against No. 8 ASU with 21 strikeouts, which was a major step in the right direction. During Arizona’s six-game losing streak, which was snapped in Tempe, the UA ace posted an 8.24 ERA across 20.1 innings.
Meanwhile, Denham has been stellar lately as well. In her last three starts, she has allowed just two runs (one earned) across 19 innings, lowering her ERA to 1.90 on the season.
The Beavers are dead last in the Pac-12 in batting average and runs scored, so look for Arizona’s 1-2 punch to have another strong weekend in the circle.
It only gets easier
Arizona’s conference schedule has been brutal to this point, but it eases up significantly to cap the regular season.
The Wildcats host Oregon State this weekend, then play at last-place Stanford in two weeks. Those two series bookend a three-game series against Grand Canyon.
Arizona has already won three straight, and it’s possible that streak reaches double digits when all is said and done — assuming the Wildcats don’t take anyone lightly, of course.
“You’re dealing with young minds and obviously they don’t understand that the game doesn’t know the name on the jersey,” Candrea said after the win vs. New Mexico.
“... And that can run into postseason, into regionals. You have a first round game and you’re not ready to play, then you can be in for a tough one. So hopefully they’ll learn from it. Hopefully they’ll understand that today they didn’t do a very good job of preparing themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally for playing the game. And when you don’t do that, the game can be very tough.”
Arizona is currently being projected as the No. 14 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, which means it would host a Regional if the season ended today.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire