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What we learned about Arizona softball in the Florida State series

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

Mike Candrea called the Florida State series a midterm for the Arizona Wildcats, seeing it as opportune time to see how his team stacks up against an elite team in a three-game series, something that will become the norm when Pac-12 play begins this weekend.

When all was said and done, the 12th-ranked Wildcats (18-7) lost two of three against the top-ranked Seminoles. They dropped the series opener 5-3, won game two 11-3, then fell 4-3 in the series finale.

Candrea gave his team a B for its performance.

“I give us a B, just because I like the way played,” he said. “Friday night we didn’t walk on the field expecting to win, but (Saturday) and (Sunday) I felt like this team found their own character.”

That character being...

“I think a lot of it is their minds were free,” Candrea said Sunday. “They weren’t playing scared. They were aggressive and I thought that overall the bats were pretty good today. The bottom of the lineup, we couldn’t get them on base and if we can get them on base, then we can put up some runs like we did it last night. So we still have some growing pains that we’re going through, but I think we’ve grown up a lot from February to right now.”

Here are some more takeaways from the series.

Arizona can beat anyone

This was not true heading into this series, entering with an 0-3 ledger against top-10 teams.

But by run-ruling Florida State on Saturday and owning a + 5 run differential for the series, Arizona now knows it can not only compete with the nation’s top teams, but outplay them too.

“I think they finally know what they need to do to come out and play their very best softball, and to me that’s the one thing I take out of this whole weekend is they understand who they are, what they can do,” Candrea said. “Now it’s time to put it into action.”

Pitching depth is for real

One of the most surprising things about this series is Arizona ace Taylor McQuillin only pitched six innings, starting in Friday’s opener and that’s it. The Wildcats used three different starting pitchers — Gina Snyder and Alyssa Denham, being the other two — plus deployed Hanah Bowen out of the bullpen.

“We got to show that with three pitchers ... we can compete with a top-ranked team, and a lot of other teams don’t have that,” Denham said. “We have three pitchers that can pitch at any given moment, and we really have six.”

Quantity doesn’t necessarily equate to quality, but the Wildcats’ array of arms held the nation’s No. 1 offense to 12 runs in three games, more than three runs under its season average.

“I think some people came out and threw some good games and I think that gives us a little advantage going into Pac-12 play because you gotta prepare for three or four (pitchers), whatever it may be,” Candrea said. “And yeah I feel really good about that. I don’t feel good about the loss (Sunday) because ultimately we play the games to learn how to win series, but I think outside of that and the unforced mistakes that we made, I like where this team is.”

Those unforced errors being a few errors and a ton of bases on balls. UA pitchers walked 15 batters in 19 innings and naturally they proved to be costly. Sunday, for instance, Denham walked two batters in the fifth before surrendering a three-run homer that gave the Seminoles a decisive 4-3 lead.

“I didn’t go right after the three-four (hitters in the lineup) and I missed one pitch in the whole game and that’s how it goes,” she said.

Of the five runners that scored Friday against McQuillin, three reached base via walk. Not to mention one of the five runs scored via a hit by pitch.

“70 percent of walks end up scoring — or maybe higher,” Candrea said. “That was the case this weekend.”

Offense has a lot of potential

Tallying 17 runs and 25 hits in 19 innings against Florida State is no easy feat. The key, clearly, is getting production from the bottom of the order. The 7-8-9 hitters combined for five hits in five innings in the 11-3 rout, setting the table for Arizona’s always-dangerous top of the order.

Two days later, UA’s 7-8-9 hitters went hitless in seven innings and Arizona lost 4-3.

“Just to get on base, that’s the biggest thing,” Candrea said when asked what he wants from the bottom of the lineup. “Whether it’s drawing a walk or getting hit by a pitch or whether it’s just getting 60 feet. One thing is Peanut (Martinez) and Jenna Kean, this was test for me to see what they would do against a good lefty (Meghan King), because that’s not your ultimate matchup, but I really felt they put the ball in play. We just hit the ball right at people.”

Of course, timely hitting is crucial too. Arizona had the tying and winning runs in scoring position with two outs in the seventh in Sunday’s series finale, but Bowen struck out looking as Arizona’s rally fell short.

“I think our mindset right now offensively is really good,” Candrea said.

Defense is still shaky at home

Hillenbrand Stadium is still receiving some finishing touches and UA’s defense could use some too.

The Wildcats committed two errors in Sunday’s series finale, both coming back to haunt them. Third baseman Malia Martinez booted a grounder that would have gotten Arizona out of a bases-loaded jam, but instead allowed the Seminoles to tie the game in the third.

Also: the only reason the bases were loaded to begin with is because Denham made two miscues. First, she made a throwing error on a bunt that put the leadoff runner at third. Then she unsuccessfully tried to gun down that runner after fielding a comebacker instead of taking the sure out at first.

To her credit, she battled through it and would have gotten out of the inning unscathed if not for Martinez’s error.

“It’s just learning to relax and make the plays and not let the game speed up,” Candrea said. “Very uncharacteristic, but for some reason we’ve had that issue here in this new stadium. So hopefully we will get beyond that. But I like where this team is.”

The craziest stat continues to be that Arizona has made all 21 of its errors at home.

Malia is more mature

Martinez quickly bounced back from her error by shooting a two-run single through the right side to give Arizona a 3-1 lead in the third in Sunday’s finale.

It was the highlight of Candrea’s day.

“That’s what we talk about all the time,” he said. “She reset, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Things probably would have been different last year, when Martinez struggled hitting with runners in scoring position.

“I think it’s just not getting too frazzled,” she said when asked what’s changed. “I knew my teammates were going to pick me up. They all had really good ABs and loaded the bases.”

No need to worry about Palomino-Cardoza in center

When it was revealed that Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza would be moving back to the outfield this season, there were some concerns about how well she would hold up out there.

After all, she tore both ACLs in her first two years at Arizona, which prompted her to move to first base in 2018.

But make no mistake about it, Palomino-Cardoza is back to being her old, center-fielding self. The redshirt junior made two incredible defensive plays Saturday. One was a full-extension diving catch in the left-center gap. The other was a running grab at the wall in right-center in which she immediately fired a laser to first base to double off a runner.

“It’s awesome because I’m not going to lie I was nervous for her to go out there,” said Snyder, who was in the circle during Palomino-Cardoza’s heroics. “I was like ‘girl we need you at the plate. I don’t want to take any risks’ and I’m glad that she was stubborn (about playing outfield) because she worked tonight.”

Candrea didn’t have much of a reaction to Palomino-Cardoza’s web gems.

“I guess I kind of expect her to do things like that,” he said. “The one catch she made up against the fence and doubled the runner off was huge.”