The Arizona Wildcats kicked off Pac-12 play over the weekend after finishing up a challenging non-conference slate with an 18-7 record.
The ‘Cats couldn’t have had an easier introduction to league competition this year, drawing the Oregon Ducks as their first opponent. By early Sunday afternoon, Arizona had completed three easy victories and were sporting a 21-7 record.
When your opponent was forced to hold open tryouts just to form a team this year, it’s not surprising when they’re picked to finish last in the conference. That is what’s facing the Ducks, who were decimated by transfers in the off season.
After getting drubbed 16-0 in two run-rule losses, Oregon was finally able to break through and score on Sunday. But, for the most part, this will be a “3 Way Up, 3 Kinda Unsatisfying” analysis of Arizona. Oregon just wasn’t in any position to compete with the Wildcats.
Home Runs...lots of home runs
Arizona hit a total of four home runs in the opening game, leading to an 8-0 run-rule victory in the sixth inning. Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza’s was the most spectacular, as it sailed high into the Tucson sky before landing on top of the Ina E. Gittings Building beyond right field.
On Saturday, Jenna Kean’s first homer of the season was one of three that left Hillenbrand Stadium en route to an 8-0 Arizona victory. Dejah Mulipola blasted two.
As the series wound down, Arizona used two more home runs to help secure the sweep. Palomino-Cardoza and Reyna Carranco lifted their team on Sunday after the Wildcats had surrendered the lead on an error by Carranco, who atoned for it with a grand slam.
Spreading the wealth
Throughout the non-conference season, head coach Mike Candrea experimented with the bottom of the lineup, trying to find one that could consistently get on base and turn the order over. Against the better teams on the schedule, the Wildcats had difficulty doing that.
In six games against opponents ranked in the top 10, the 7-8-9 spots in the order hit a combined .111. Of the eight players who took a turn in that part of the order, only Peanut Martinez hit over .200.
Oregon was the cure for that. While Martinez didn’t have a great series, her two teammates in the 7-8-9 spots were spectacular.
Rylee Pierce has had an off-and-on season. She started slow, then began to turn things around. Unfortunately, just as she was having success, she got hit by a pitch and had to sit out a few games. She struggled to return to form on her return. Then, she faced the Ducks.
Pierce went 5 for 7 over the weekend, including two doubles and two RBI. She added two walks and four runs to her stat line for a very impressive weekend.
Kean had a similar turnaround. She hit .375 against Oregon pitching, including a three-run homer in the second game.
A true pitching staff
Candrea has gotten some criticism in past seasons for leaning heavily on one or two pitchers for the entire year. Early in non-conference play, it appeared that he might continue that tendency. Taylor McQuillin and Alyssa Denham pitched the bulk of the innings, just as they did last season.
Candrea and the pitchers talked about the idea of a complete staff from the beginning. Both coach and pitchers said that they had a true staff, and they would be using it.
Of course, both the coach and the players have said that in the past. It hasn’t amounted to much most years.
It didn’t look like this year was going to be any different. The talk about using the entire staff would stop, or at least everyone would realize it wasn’t going to happen, after the tournaments were over. It was just a topic of abstract discussion, like last year.
Then something happened.
Gina Snyder had a good start in an exhibition against Japan, the No. 2 team in the international game. She followed that up with a one-hitter against Kent State, then a relief appearance against the same Kent State team.
Wins over New Mexico State and No. 1 Florida State solidified her as a legitimate option for the Wildcats. She justified the trust her coach and teammates showed in her with yet another win against Oregon to improve to 4-0 on the season.
After Sunday’s game, McQuillin was asked how this year differed from last, when she would have likely been asked to start two games in each series. She might have even been put in to relieve in the third game.
“I think just the maturity and the depth we have in our pitching staff,” she replied. “Everybody wants to go out. Everybody wants to compete. But, I think, at the end of the day, we have six pitchers we can trust to go out there and get the job done. So, it’s nice to know that our defense is supportive of all of us and we’re supportive of one another. And, I think it’s great, especially seeing Gina pitch a lot more this year and seeing Denham coming in games and shutting them down.”
Errors at crucial times
The Wildcats’ defensive miscues have come in bunches this season. They would play several clean games in a row, then commit multiple errors or errors at critical times in a single game.
Over the first 28 games, two Wildcat pitchers have been hurt by errors behind them the most. Denham (.22 errors per inning pitched) and Snyder (.21 errors per IP) have had to overcome almost twice as many errors per inning as McQuillin (.10 error per IP).
In Denham’s 40.2 IP, she has been in the circle for nine errors that have led to three unearned runs. Snyder has had to overcome four errors in 19 IP. On average, both have had to pitch through an error every five innings.
The pattern repeated itself in the series against Oregon. For two games, Arizona played perfect defensively. Then, came the third. A walk preceded a defensive miscue in the top of the third inning, leading to two unearned runs and the end of Denham’s day.
“I think we were just cruising, and then made a couple of mishaps, errors,” McQuillin said about Sunday’s game. “We just got to emphasize them a little more, and get the job done. Get Denham out of that inning, and things might have been a little different.”
An off day in the circle
After shutouts in the first two games, Arizona’s pitching wasn’t as sharp on Sunday. It was enough to win, but both Candrea and McQuillin felt that they didn’t have their best game.
“Unfortunately, Denham was just cruising along, and then walks the nine hitter with four pitches,” Candrea said. “Then, boom, boom. And none of the balls were hit hard, but, still, I just kind of felt like she was losing it, and made a change. And Taylor was not at her best, obviously.”
Lack of killer instinct
The team overcame the shakiness in the circle and the miscue in the field, but Candrea felt that they might have been complacent after posting two big wins.
“Like I told the team, there’s a mentality you have to have to be a great team,” Candrea said. “I call it Championship Sunday, but you have to come out here—when you have a chance to make a statement, you make a statement. And I thought they did a great job Friday and Saturday, and I think maybe today they thought they were going to be in for a cakewalk. But I’ll promise you no matter who we play from here on out, that’s not going to ever be the case.”