Mike Candrea always says there are three keys to being a championship softball team: great pitching, great defense, and timely hitting.
Let’s add a fourth: staying healthy.
Arizona was without two key bats during its sweep of Oregon State last weekend.
Senior centerfielder Ashleigh Hughes has missed the last four games with a broken hand, while redshirt sophomore first baseman Alyssa Palomino missed Sunday’s series-finale with a left knee strain.
Hughes, a second-team All-Pac-12 performer last season, was hitting .285/.318/.439 with five homers and a team-high 14 stolen bases before her injury.
Palomino is slashing an absurd .382/.469/.765 with 15 homers, tied with UA shortstop Jessie Harper for the Pac-12 lead. That is obviously production Arizona cannot afford to lose.
Hughes’ injury appears to be more serious than Palomino’s. The senior has been wearing a sling on her left arm, and while Candrea said he expects her to play again this season, it did sound like it would be a limited role.
Palomino’s injury was downplayed too, but Arizona has to be overly cautious with her. She has suffered two ACL tears since arriving at the UA. One of them forced her to miss her true freshman season, while the other held her out of the postseason last year.
Looking to avoid a similar outcome, Candrea gave Palomino Sunday off.
“Alyssa just strained her knee a little bit and just for precautionary measures we decided to not play her today and give her some rest,” he said. “So she’ll get a good four days rest. But that’s all it is.”
The rest of the Wildcats’ regular season schedule is soft (more on that later), so it would not be surprising if Palomino continues to sit. She wore a heavy brace on her leg Sunday and was not in uniform. (Hughes was.)
Palomino’s replacement at first base was Joelle Krist. The junior went 1-for-3 with an RBI in Sunday’s win.
It was just Krist’s eighth start all season, but Candrea expressed confidence in her “because I see her everyday.”
“And I think that’s what this team is all about,” he said. “Hopefully kids that aren’t in the lineup are preparing themselves if something happens, and Joelle has done a good job. She’s been positive all year, she’s had some at-bats off the bench. We’ve kinda struggled with that portion of our game in pinch-hitting, but I have confidence in Joelle. She’s been in some big games. She was in the Super Regionals a few years ago, so it’s not like it’s her first rodeo.”
Krist was a Pac-12 All-Freshman performer in 2016, but hasn’t played much since then. This year, she is hitting .241 in with one home run and seven RBI. Krist said it takes a little bit of time to re-adjust to live pitching — but not too long.
“It’s kind of like riding a bike,” she said. “You get back into it and it feels normal.”
Meanwhile, Hughes’ replacement has been Jenna Kean, who has done a solid job in the lead-off spot. The freshman has three hits and four walks in the last four games.
Krist said Candrea’s unpredictability forces players to stay prepared even when they aren’t in the lineup.
“Knowing that coach makes split decisions and I can get in there any second, I have to be ready every pitch, every inning, every game, every day,” she said.
While injuries have forced some changes at the top of Arizona’s lineup, Ivy Davis has fortified her spot in the middle of it.
The freshman designated player only started in three games from the start of the season to April 14, but has started in 11 straight since.
Well, over the last 10 games, Davis leads Arizona in home runs (4) and RBI (12). In all, she has 17 RBI in just 40 at-bats, which is the best RBI/AB percentage since Chelsea Goodacre’s .488 figure in 2015.
Davis had five RBI and a walk-off grand slam Sunday.
“Ivy stepped in at a really good time for us and starting having some good at-bats,” Candrea said. “I’m really pleased with her. She’s a kid that works hard and I think has got good skills and understands the game. She’s been around the game for a long time.
“The biggest thing she had to do is learn how to slow it down. And most freshmen do. They get out here and they’re making decisions when the ball leaves the pitchers’ hands instead of seeing the ball at the plate. So she’s going to get better, better, and better.”
On two different occasions last weekend, pitching coach Taryne Mowatt made a visit to the circle while Arizona was in a jam — and both times the Wildcats’ pitchers absorbed her message and escaped unscathed.
“I think she has a very calm mind,” said UA left-hander Taylor McQuillin. “She’s walking out there to calm us down (and say) ‘let’s look at a game plan. This is what this batter’s done. This is how we’ve been successful. What are you thinking? What are your thoughts?“ Stuff like that.
“I’ve said it a million times — she has that championship mindset. She knows what it’s like to play in crucial games. She played in the Pac-12, she went to Arizona, she won national championships here, so it’s great to have somebody with that type of mentality and that type of coaching ability to come out and calm us down when we need it.”
With Mowatt’s help, Arizona’s pitching has been phenomenal lately. The Wildcats have posted a 1.08 ERA in their last nine games, and have twice as many strikeouts (66) as hits allowed (33).
No. 2 starter Alyssa Denham has allowed three earned runs in her last 24 innings. She helped start UA’s six-game winning streak on April 21 by tossing seven innings of one-run ball against then-No. 8 ASU.
“She’s all about posture,” Candrea said. “She almost has to set her posture before she throws a dropball, or a riseball, or curveball. And when that’s off, everything kind of gets off. That’s why I told her (Saturday), I told Taryne to get in the bullpen between innings and give her a little reminder and loosen her up and she did a really good job.”
Denham has a 1.95 ERA across 89.2 innings this season. Those are even better numbers than she had last year at Louisiana-Lafayette when she posted a 2.27 ERA in 129.1 innings and was the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year.
“She’s been a great addition,” Candrea said. “She’ll keep the ball in the ballpark and she’ll get a lot of ground balls. The biggest thing with her is she’s got to learn to keep people off balance a little bit at this level in this league.”
Fellow UL transfer Aleah Craighton is heating up, too. You can read about that here.
Of course, one reason why Arizona has won so many games in a row and is experiencing statistical upticks is because the schedule has softened considerably — and it will stay that way through the rest of the regular season.
The Wildcats have six games left: three at home against Grand Canyon and three on the road against Stanford. GCU is 27-23. Stanford is tied for last in the Pac-12.
That is a far cry from the stretch Arizona had a month ago when it faced five ranked teams — four were in the Top 10 and three were in the Top 5 — in five weekends.
“I wish it would have been spread out, but I have no choice on that,” Candrea said. “But I think right now we just have to continue to improve and do the things that we need to do. I think our biggest opponent sometimes is ourselves. But we also know going into postseason that the bar is going to be raised, and I’m glad right now that we’re going to hopefully walk in there with some confidence.”
When asked if he’s worried about the remaining schedule being too unceremonious, Candrea said: “Last year we had a week of before Regionals and that I was in a panic about. At least this year, we’ve got Grand Canyon and Stanford is a much-improved team and on the road, so that’ll be a challenge for us. It’s not going to be a cakewalk.”
Arizona remained at No. 10 in the NFCA/USA Today Poll. UCLA and Oregon are still No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.
ESPN says Arizona currently projects as the No. 13 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“Fresh off the Arizona State series win, the Wildcats further abated their slide with three valuable RPI wins against Oregon State -- nearly half of their season total of seven against the top 25. That’s both good news and bad news, as it’s still fewer than almost any team here,” wrote Graham Hays.
Another projection has Arizona as the No. 13 seed, and guess who was placed in the Tucson Regional? Baylor.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire