Alyssa Denham retired all nine batters she faced in Wednesday’s fall game against Phoenix College, blowing away five of them on strikes.
It was almost as if to say hey, I’m still here.
Because with all the fanfare that followed the addition of Oklahoma transfer Mariah Lopez —and rightfully so—it can be easy to forget that Arizona is also returning a pitcher who is pretty darn good.
And only getting better.
Thanks to some hard work in the weight room, Denham’s velocity is up a few more ticks this fall, as she now tops out in the upper 60s. The lanky right-hander is also spinning the ball more and refining her off-speed pitches, the hope being that she can generate more swinging strikes.
Denham also enters her senior season with a wealth of experience, having started games in Super Regionals and the Women’s College World Series last year.
Put it all together, and it puts her in a good spot to build on her junior season in which she went 13-6 with a 1.94 ERA and fanned a career-high 112 batters in 108 innings.
“I think right now Denham knows she can be a dominant force,” said UA coach Mike Candrea. “I really believe that the mental state has caught up with the physical part of the game. The thing I was impressed with last year is the speed she developed with Taryne (Mowatt). We were looking at a kid that’s throwing 62, 63 and all of a sudden now she’s in the 66, 67 range, which makes her that much tougher. I’m really pleased with where she’s at now and she’ll continue working hard and Mariah will push her and and she will push Mariah. I think that’s a good thing.”
As opposed to the notion that adding Lopez was some kind of signal that Arizona wasn’t confident Denham could be the ace of the staff.
“I think today’s game everyone knows you’re not going to do it with one (pitcher),” Candrea said. “I think any kid that’s smart that understands where we want to go and how we’re going to have to get there, they’re going to embrace having that 1-2 punch.”
Denham said Wednesday that she was excited when she heard Arizona added Lopez, and foresees their pitching styles complementing each other nicely this season.
“We both throw hard, but we don’t throw the same pitches, so I think that’s going to be really useful and definitely be to our advantage,” she said.
Denham likes to work down in the zone; Lopez tends to work up.
“They’re two opposites, that’s the one thing I’m really excited about,” Candrea said. “I think we’ve got a good 1-2 punch, and I think Marissa (Schuld) is throwing well and I think (Hanah) Bowen is throwing well.”
Palomino-Cardoza back to first base?
Freshman Janelle Meono, a speedy left-handed contact hitter, has led off both fall games so far. She has impressed the coaching staff with her glove, bat, and baserunning ability.
So much so that if the season started today, it sounds like she would start in center field and All-American Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza would slide to first base, where she played in 2018 when she was returning from a torn ACL.
The Wildcats have been trying out several players at that position, including senior Malia Martinez, junior Ivy Davis, sophomore Izzy Pacho and freshman Sharlize Palacios, but Candrea said Palomino-Cardoza looks the most comfortable of the bunch.
That said, it is only October and he plans to give all of them an extended look, figuring the cream will eventually rise to the top.
“It’s going to take me a while to figure it out,” Candrea said.
Palomino-Cardoza has called herself an outfielder “at heart” but Candrea expects her to embrace a return to first base should it come down to that.
“She’ll do whatever it takes for this team to be successful,” he said. “She loves being in the grass, but she’ll like being in the dirt too.”
The catching position is the other spot up for grabs, now that Dejah Mulipola is off to the Olympics. Pacho and Palacios are in the running there. You can read more about them here.
For what it is worth, Candrea has heaped a lot of praise on Palacios’ arm during the fall. Both have done good things at the plate.
More speed and versatility
With Meono potentially anchoring the top of the lineup and fellow freshman Bella Dayton, who features a similar skill set, being a new option in the corner outfield, the Wildcats boast more speed than they did last season.
The expectation is that will allow them to have a more consistent offense—one that can steal bases and scratch out runs with the short game, rather than having to rely so heavily on home-run hitters like Palomino-Cardoza, Martinez, and Jessie Harper.
That “station-to-station” approach, as Candrea calls it, can get exposed against elite pitching.
“If there is one thing you can see it is a lot of options that we have,” Candrea said. “I think that’s the strength of this team: flexibility. We have players that can play multiple positions. It gives us a tremendous amount of depth.”