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Jessie Harper’s walk-off homer lifts Arizona past No. 19 James Madison

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

The Arizona Wildcats have a flair for the dramatic.

Jessie Harper launched a towering, two-run walk-off homer to left Sunday as the Wildcats beat No. 19 James Madison 8-6 in a game that featured an extra inning and plenty of twists and turns.

Arizona (15-5) blew a 4-0 lead in the fifth, then erased one-run deficits in seventh and eighth innings when they were down to their final out.

The theatrics came a day after they won in walk-off fashion against Kent State after surrendering a two-run lead in the seventh.

“I think last night’s game prepared us for the moments in this game,” said UA ace Taylor McQuillin, who pitched all eight innings. “Our team did a great job battling, especially at the end there.”

It should not have come down to Harper’s homer, but the Wildcats made a couple inexcusable errors that allowed James Madison to hang around.

First, there was first baseman Rylee Pierce spiking a throw to home plate that permitted James Madison to score its first of four runs in a big fifth inning.

Then, after a double plated two more runs, Harper airmailed a throw over Pierce’s head that allowed the tying run to score. It should have been a routine, inning-ending groundout.

“It’s not too often that it’s a throwing error that usually occurs but it definitely was one where I felt responsible for not getting out of that inning,” the junior shortstop said. “Taylor was able to pick me back up, but that was just relying on my teammates and knowing that we had our at-bats next and I had confidence in my lineup. I was happy my team was able to pick me up for that. Definitely have to flush those quick.”

Pierce and Harper atoned for their errors.

Harper’s long ball, her 11th of the season, served as the deciding blow, while Pierce, who also made a fielding error in the second, forced extra innings by hitting a sharp grounder to the right side that was too hot for James Madison second baseman Madison Naujokas to handle, allowing Ivy Davis to score from second in the seventh.

“We had our little ups and downs in that game,” Harper said, “but I think our fight was definitely good.”

Harper made another error in the eighth, this time a mental one. After blasting the game-winning homer, she made a cut toward home plate after stepping on second, seemingly unaware that she needed to touch third.

Fortunately, Candrea and Hillary Edior were there to correct her path. A blonde moment, Harper called it.

“It’s not gonna happen again,” she smiled. “Ever, ever, ever.”

Candrea addressed it after the game, pulling Harper aside after the Wildcats broke their huddle.

“It can’t happen to win big games like that,” Candrea said. “You play a team like Florida State (who Arizona hosts next weekend), you can’t give them more than 21 outs. That’s all I ask.

“If someone touches her, that’s the third out and it would have went to another extra inning. But you would think most of these kids that have played this game for a long time would understand things, but we still get stupid questions.

“Yeah, you can get excited and I like the excitement, but you can’t lose control of what the hell is going on in front of you.”

McQuillin, a senior, illustrated what it means to stay composed. Candrea liked the way she competed in the circle, despite the shoddy defense around her. The lefty hurled 115 pitches, weaving in and out of danger several times in the late goings.

James Madison singled home a run in the top of the eighth and could have blown the game open thereafter, but McQuillin induced two come-backers, one of which she turned for a double play, to limit the damage to just the one run.

“Some pitchers would have dismantled, and she would have a couple years ago, but she didn’t,” Candrea said. “She kept her composure, kept taking it one pitch at a time.”

So did Reyna Carranco, who ripped a two-out RBI double in the eighth to tie the game and set up Harper’s heroics.

“I don’t know if she’s got a heartbeat,” Candrea said of Carranco. “She’s one of those kids that absolutely is even-keeled. And as a player, that’s really what you want.”

The clutch hits capped a stellar day offensively for the Wildcats, who had 13 hits from eight different players. Candrea thought Arizona, which has won 12 of its last 13, hit the rise ball better than it did at any point in the last two, three years.

“That was the good part,” he said. “On the other hand, you have to pitch, you have to play defense. ... We’re not going to win many games with three errors, so we’ve got to keep working on that and keep pounding it.”

Postgame interviews

Mike Candrea

Here is Mike Candrea after Arizona’s dramatic win over No. 19 James Madison

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Sunday, March 3, 2019

Taylor McQuillin

Here’s Taylor McQuillin after tossing a complete game in Arizona’s extra-inning win over No. 19 James Madison

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Sunday, March 3, 2019

Jessie Harper

Here’s Jessie Harper after her walk-off homer in Arizona’s win over No. 19 James Madison

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Sunday, March 3, 2019