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‘Underrated’ Malia Martinez having breakout season with Arizona softball

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

As Malia Martinez stood on the outfield grass and answered questions from a throng of reporters, Taylor McQuillin walked by with a smile.

“I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll say it again,” the UA ace would later say, “Malia is so underrated for the type of player that she is. And I’m super excited that she’s getting the recognition that she deserves.”

Martinez, shy and reserved, is not one to seek the spotlight but she forced herself into it by having the best week of her career.

The junior third baseman logged 10 hits and 18 RBI in five games as the red-hot Arizona Wildcats swept UTEP and Utah to extend their winning streak to 14.

Martinez didn’t have much to say about it. She answered reporters’ questions with just a short sentence or two, staying true to her quiet personality.

But McQuillin, who rooms with Martinez on the road, said Martinez has started to come out of her shell this season.

“When she first came here for her official visit, I was her host for the weekend. And I just remember trying to talk to her, trying to get words out of her. And it was like pulling teeth just trying to get her to talk,” McQuillin said. “And now I think she’s grown a lot more.”

At the plate, especially. Martinez is hitting .368 with 10 home runs and 41 RBI, all of which are career-highs, never mind that there are still plenty of games left to pad those totals.

Hitting behind the fearsome foursome that is Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, Reyna Carranco, Jessie Harper and Dejah Mulipola, Martinez bolsters an Arizona lineup that very few, if any, teams can match.

The Wildcats are the only team in the nation to have more than two players with 10 or more homers. They have four, with Martinez the latest to join the club known as the Hillenbrand Bombers.

“She’s not underrated on our team but I think she gets overlooked sometimes, and sometimes when you have solid lineups, there’s always kids that kind of fly under the radar,” said UA coach Mike Candrea. “But I think we all know she’s hitting in that position for a reason. And so I hope she understands that.”

Martinez is hitting over 100 points higher than she did as sophomore, which was her first year as a starter. She got off to a hot start in 2018 but fizzled as the season went on, seeing her batting average drop to .262 by the end of the year.

Martinez only hit .247 in conference play that season, but is hitting .367 against Pac-12 pitching this year, showing no signs of a second-half slump.

“She’s really matured offensively,” McQuillin said. “Just kind of understanding this is the pitch that I want, these are the pitches that I’m going to get in this situation, and this is what I have to do to execute and get my job done. And I think that she does a beautiful job of doing that.”

Martinez said her improvement stems from a slight swing change and another year of seeing live pitching.

“She was having a tough time staying in her legs,” Candrea detailed. “She had a tendency to kind of get off her front side a lot. And I think this year, she’s really been able to stay behind the ball and be able to generate a lot more power, a lot more rotation. But I think a lot of it is just the maturity of the hitters that we have, that have seen good pitching, that understand being able to have a plan, but also be able to execute the plan.

“And I think with the young kids, you can give them a plan, but 90 percent of the time, they can’t tell the difference between a ball and a strike. So no matter what plan you give, they kind of struggle. But I think as you get older and you get a little more mature, and you improve that database that you have as a hitter, you can definitely zero in on your strength instead of hitting the pitcher’s strength. And usually the results are much better.”

All the while, Martinez has remained a steady defender, with just seven errors in 39 games. And what her .942 fielding percentage does not depict is the range she has at the hot corner.

“She was a decent shortstop (in high school), but we always kind of knew that we’re going to probably end up putting her at a corner,” Candrea said. “And she’s really developed defensively as a pretty good third baseman. Sometimes you see the range that she has, and I think that’s the reason why she’s able to do that, because she grew up playing in the middle of the field and having to cover more ground.”

In other words, Arizona pitchers breathe easy when the ball is hit Martinez’s direction.

“Knowing that she’s one of our corners at third base, it just makes life a lot easier,” McQuillin said. “She’s probably one of the best corners in the country.”

Even if outsiders don’t always see it that way.

“I just feel like she flies under the radar,” McQuillin said. “I think a lot of people like to look at the big names or the players that hit 20-plus home runs a season or the pitchers that get 1,000-plus strikeouts in their careers. Malia is a really consistent player. She makes the great plays, she makes the routine plays. She’s that player that you want to have on your team at all times, and I’m just so glad she’s on my team.”