The top of Arizona’s lineup is as good as it gets.
It features do-it-all second baseman Reyna Carranco, who is hitting a team-high .452, along with a tremendous trio of Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, Dejah Mulipola and Jessie Harper, whose power has people referring to them as the “Hillenbrand Bombers.”
Those three have gone deep 36 times, making Arizona the only team in the country with three players with 10 or more home runs.
“We’re just having fun and feeding off the energy from each other,” Palomino-Cardoza said.
But the key to Arizona’s top-20 offense actually resides in the bottom of the order, per head coach Mike Candrea. You know, the unit that sets the table for the sluggers at the top.
“When you watch good teams, that’s what you’re going to see,” he said. “When we’re having our best games is when we can get the bottom of the order to start at least getting on base. I don’t care about how many hits they get, but how many quality at-bats do they have?”
So it is a major development that senior first baseman and No. 7 hitter Rylee Pierce is starting to look like her old self. The Missouri transfer went hitless in her first 15 at-bats with the Wildcats, but has 13 base knocks in her last 33 at-bats, upping her average to .271 heading into this weekend’s series at Oregon State.
“Hitting is just a weird thing,” Pierce said. “Sometimes things go well and sometimes things don’t. I think in general sometimes you’re seeing the ball really well, sometimes you’re not. And I think it happens to everyone’s career in different moments. And it just so happened to be in the beginning (of the season).”
Candrea thinks Pierce, an All-SEC talent who joined the program in the fall, was pressing at the beginning of the season as she tried to prove herself to her new teammates and coaches.
“I think the big thing with hitting is it’s confidence,” Candrea said. “It’s running into one, and sometimes that’s all it takes. Hitting is a very difficult skill and when you’re pressing it becomes even more difficult. You start getting tight, you start getting slow.”
A career .306 hitter at Missouri, Pierce acknowledged that she might have been putting too much pressure on herself, and admitted it was frustrating when she was unable to square the ball up in the first two weeks of the season.
“I think after you go few games without squaring it up, you start to go back to the chalkboard and think about the things that you can do better so that you can square it up,” she said.
For Pierce, that meant shortening her swing and keeping her upper half steady. Candrea noted that she had developed a tendency to bob her head and dive at pitches.
“I was swinging pretty big,” she said. “It might not look that much different but ... it was a big swing. And so I just shortened things up and it seems to be working.”
Pierce finally broke into the hit column on Feb. 17 against Cal State Fullerton when she laced a double into the right-center gap. It was the start of a six-game stretch in which she had seven hits, including her first homer as a Wildcat.
“She got a double, a line-drive hit, and from that moment she knew she could do this,” Palomino-Cardoza said.
Pierce’s hot streak was nearly extinguished on March 5 when she got plunked on the wrist in a road game at New Mexico State. The beaning inflicted so much pain that Pierce was immediately removed from the game because she could not make it to first base.
“That was concerning because usually I’m one to just shake it out and go, but I really couldn’t move it,” she said.
Pierce hoped the injury was minor, but knew it could be serious.
“The timing was weird,” she said. “I was seeing the ball well leading up to that point, and so when that did happen, it was unfortunate. But I’m a person of faith. I just knew that God has a timing that is necessary for me. And so I just kind of left it in God’s hands at that point. I was hoping that it wasn’t broken obviously, but I knew that whatever the result was on the X-Ray, it was all meant to be.”
Ultimately, Pierce was diagnosed with a bone bruise. Candrea described it as “pretty severe”, though it only sidelined Pierce for two games. When she returned, it was like she never left. Pierce sprayed six hits in her next 12 at-bats.
“She got out of who she was as a player, but she’s finding her way,” Palomino-Cardoza said.
Pierce said the injury hasn’t affected her play. In fact, the only time it flares up is when she shakes someone’s hand or places her throwing hand on the infield dirt when she stretches to scoop a low throw.
“When I’m playing, adrenaline’s going, so it’s not that painful,” she said. “I’m still doing treatment, so it’s just bruise maintenance and pain tolerance. I can deal with some pain.”
Evidently so, because Pierce went 5 for 7 in the sweep of Oregon last weekend, with two RBI, a pair of doubles and her second homer.
With the senior buoying the bottom of the lineup, the Wildcats plated 24 runs against the Ducks. Pierce not only drove in two runs, she scored five.
“If she gets on and Peanut (Martinez) and Jenna (Kean) do something to get her over, then we’re back at the top,” said Palomino-Cardoza, the leadoff hitter. “So I think having her there and having her figure it out is going to be really deadly for our lineup.”
Now that Pierce has been in Tucson for several months, she says the most impressive thing about the Arizona program is how everyone, from coaches to players to staffers, seem to know their role and how to execute it.
“All the details that go into making a program, I feel like here they just cover all of them,” she said.
And after a slow start, Pierce is doing her part by lengthening Arizona’s lineup.
“Sometimes when you get someone in a new situation they try to make sure that everyone knows they belong,” Candrea said. “So I think she is starting to find her own identity.”