Alyssa Denham saw this version of Aleah Craighton all last season. Now the Arizona Wildcats are getting to see it, too.
Craighton doubled and homered for the second time in as many games, leading the 10th-ranked Wildcats to a 6-2 win over Oregon State on Saturday at Hillenbrand Stadium.
“Aleah’s looking like the player she was all season last year,” said Denham, who was teammates with Craighton at Louisiana-Lafayette in 2017. “She’s a tough out every time she comes up to bat. She’ll go deep in the count. She’s not going to help you as a pitcher. She’s really on.”
Craighton was a two-time All-American at Louisiana-Lafayette where she hit .345 with 18 home runs a season ago. So when she — and Denham, the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year — transferred to Arizona in the winter, lofty expectations followed.
But Craighton has struggled to replicate that production in Tucson. The senior is hitting .276 with eight homers.
However, she recently made a tweak to her swing and now boasts a five-game hitting streak, providing a major boost to an Arizona offense that has been inconsistent this year.
“I’ve been trusting the process and it’s finally coming together,” Craighton said. “Sometimes you struggle, but if you keep at it you’ll find a way. My swing has been all over the place honestly, so just to get back to it feels really good.”
Craighton’s swing is unlike any of her teammates’ because Louisiana-Lafayette hitters have a different style and emphasize different mechanics, Arizona coach Mike Candrea said.
So now that the coaches who emphasized those mechanics aren’t in Craighton’s ear anymore, her swing has broken down.
“What she does is she tips, which is OK, but she gets (through the zone) and just kind of stops everything,” Candrea explained.
“So the other night I said ‘the inside pitch, you’re getting it but you’re stopping your swing and the ball’s not going anywhere.’ I said ‘all I want you to do is make sure you finish with your top hand.’ Now she’s starting to throw the barrel a little bit and is getting it back.”
Add the stylistic differences to the improved pitching in the Pac-12 and the unconventionality of her arrival, and Candrea knew it would take time for Craighton to find her groove in the desert.
“Both Aleah and Alyssa came from a good program and everyone does things a little different, and I commend those two for walking in here in January in a brand new environment, new coaches, and doing a really great job of making the transition,” Candrea said.
“The tough part has been making sure that we’re able to give them what they need. I did not want to change Aleah Craighton when she came here. You don’t do that in January, so I had to let her perform and watch her, and recently we’ve started to get on some things that have helped her.
“I think Alyssa is the same way with (pitching coach) Taryne (Mowatt). You’ve got to learn and understand what they do, and what makes them tick. It’s always little things, but in the hitting department I can tell you that Lafayette swings the bat completely different than most people. It does work for them, but it has been a little bit of a transition.
“Now (Craighton’s) starting to understand some things and I’m just really happy that it’s happening right now because she’s doing a good job.”
Arizona trailed 2-1 in the second when Craighton lifted a towering two-run, go-ahead homer to left. The Wildcats (34-13, 10-10) never relinquished the lead from there, capturing their fifth straight victory and their fourth straight win over a Pac-12 team.
Jessie Harper hit an RBI single in the second and homered in the sixth. Jenna Kean added an RBI single in the third which made it a 5-2 game. Arizona took a 1-0 lead in the first after back-to-back errors by the OSU shortstop.
In all, the Wildcats tallied seven hits and drew five walks, posting another solid offensive performance. They run-ruled the Beavers 9-0 in Friday’s series-opener.
Candrea thinks Arizona has done a good job of not trying to do too much at the plate.
“There’s situations sometimes where it allows hitters to split the plate in half and not have to worry about this pitch up here,” he said, imitating a shoulder-high pitch. “So I felt like this week going in, we had a really good plan with these pitchers. We’re starting to trust our eyes a little bit, and hitting the ball where it’s pitched, all the things you have to do to hit.
“The other thing is the confidence. I thought last night was a big confidence boost and we carried it on today. And we have some people that are starting to step up.”
Denham picked up her ninth victory, tossing five innings of two-run ball. The UL transfer struck out two and walked one, overcoming early jitters.
“I didn’t think I was at my best, but not every appearance are you going to be feeling it,” the right-hander said. “It’s that you have to find a way to win even if you don’t have all your pitches. You gotta make it work with what you’ve got.”
Oregon State plated both of its runs in the second, thanks to an RBI single and a bases-loaded hit by pitch. Denham lost her command, and the Wildcats made an error behind her to add insult to injury.
But after a visit from Mowatt, Denham collected herself and limited the damage by escaping a one-out, bases loaded jam to keep Arizona within striking distance.
“That was more of a ‘calm, down relax’ talk,” Denham said of Mowatt’s message.
Taylor McQuillin relieved Denham to begin the sixth, and the left-hander closed the game out with two scoreless innings.
“Alyssa was not herself tonight. She was struggling trying to find it, and to me did not look comfortable the entire time. And I just felt like with the lead, I didn’t want to wait,” Candrea said of the pitching change.
“I’d rather Taylor come in with nobody on base in a new inning. And we need to get her in that situation again, so it was a plus-plus tonight.”
The Wildcats will go for the sweep Sunday at noon as they search for their sixth straight win.
Not too long ago they were losers of six straight.
“Everyone is confident when they get up to the plate, and everyone is confident when they get on the field,” Craighton said. “We trust everybody that they’ll get the job done.”
She certainly has lately.
Palomino exits with knee soreness
Anytime Alyssa Palomino exits a game, it’s noteworthy. The redshirt sophomore has suffered two ACL tears since arriving at Arizona.
Palomino was replaced at first base by Joelle Krist in the seventh inning Saturday, but mostly for precautionary reasons, Candrea said.
“Her knee’s been sore. It’s been sore forever, but we didn’t want to take a chance,” he said. “Hopefully it’ll be all right. She just felt a little something and of course a kid with two ACLs is very concerned about it. … Hopefully tomorrow there’ll be no swelling and she’ll be fine.”
Palomino was 0-for-3 with a walk before leaving the game.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire