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How Arizona softball’s pitching staff has become elite in 2019

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The Wildcats are eighth in the country in ERA entering this weekend’s series at Utah

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Alyssa Denham
Photo by Ryan Kelapire

The Arizona softball team is on a roll entering this weekend’s series at Utah. The Wildcats have won 11 in a row and are 9-0 to begin Pac-12 play for just the fourth time in program history.

Head coach Mike Candrea often says success in softball stems from the circle, and the Wildcats are getting it done in that area.

Arizona’s 1.58 ERA is the eighth-best mark in the country and second-best mark in the Pac-12, only behind No. 1 UCLA.

That is a sharp improvement from the 1.94 ERA Arizona posted last season which ranked fifth in the Pac-12 and, ultimately, was the reason the Wildcats fell short of the Women’s College World Series for the eighth straight year.

Arizona’s offense is as potent as usual this season, ranking second in the nation in homers and 17th in scoring, so the Wildcats are a legitimate WCWS contender if they can continue their dominance in the circle.

But why have Arizona’s pitchers had so much success this season? Here are several reasons.

Year two with Taryne

Pitching coach Taryne Mowatt was hired by Arizona in October of 2017, meaning she only had a few months to get familiarized with UA pitchers by the time the 2018 season rolled around.

But Arizona returned Mowatt and its entire pitching staff in 2019 (plus added two freshmen), and their chemistry is bubbling in the second year of their partnership.

“We’re learning a lot more about each other than the few quick months we had before season last year,” said UA ace Taylor McQuillin, who is 12-5 with a career-best 1.36 ERA. “She really gets to know a pitcher on an individual level and I think that’s really awesome. When we go on the mound she is more understanding of this is the pitch we want in this situation, when we’re struggling this is the go-to pitch for us. Everything like that.”

Candrea says Mowatt, who led UA to two national championships in 2006 and 2007, calls a “tremendous game” because of her uncanny ability to recall pitch sequences and the work she puts in behind the scenes.

“She definitely has a concrete idea of how she wants to attack hitters,” Candrea said. “She watches a lot of video and that’s part of the preparation at this level. You have to do that. The successes that we have is because of the fruit of the labor that she’s put into it.”

Yet, Mowatt’s preparation all goes for naught if Arizona pitchers deviate from the game plan. But that is not a problem this season, as they are shaking off Mowatt’s calls less and less these days.

“I think they understand the amount of scouting that goes into the week leading up to the series,” Mowatt said. “But also I think it’s us all getting to know each other, know what they like to throw, knowing what’s working that day or if there’s something that they’re struggling with that day, doesn’t mean we’re going to stay away from it, but it’s not necessarily going to be relied on as much.”

McQuillin is also benefiting from her longstanding relationship with junior catcher Dejah Mulipola. Not only has Mulipola been McQuillin’s battery mate the last three seasons, they also made a formidable pairing during their travel ball days with the Orange County Batbusters.

McQuillin joked it’s scary how well they know each other.

“I was just lucky with the way the cards fell for me,” she said. “I think Dejah has taken a lot of time and energy to understand the pitchers and know what they want to throw. Just like Coach T, she’s done all the work and we know what’s working for us.

“I say this every year, but I think of all the times I switch a pitch during the game, Dejah gets it wrong about two times a year. That says a lot because there’s about 500 to 1,000 pitches I shake off a year.”

Less wear and tear

Last season, McQuillin and No. 2 starter Alyssa Denham accounted for 348 of the 385 innings logged by Arizona pitchers, or about 90 percent. McQuillin logged 242 of those innings, about 63 percent.

The Wildcats have lightened their load significantly this season. McQuillin and Denham have combined for 161 of Arizona’s 226 innings, or about 71 percent. McQuillin has amassed 108 innings, only 48 percent of the team’s total.

“Over the course of the season, it’s a lot of innings to pitch if you don’t have a staff, and that can wear on you physically but also mentally, because you are you’re always on, you’re never relaxed,” Mowatt said. “But when you can kind of allocate the innings to a group of pitchers, it just helps you stay fresh, it helps keep your arm loose, your legs fresh. And I think that’s really helped our pitchers.”

It helps that Arizona’s bullpen has earned the right to pitch. Sophomore Hanah Bowen has allowed one run in 18.2 innings of work, freshman Marissa Schuld has allowed four runs (one earned) in 14.2 innings of work, and senior Gina Snyder has a 2.19 ERA in 22 innings.

The only pitcher who has not been terribly effective this season is freshman Vanessa Foreman, who still carries a respectable 3.75 ERA.

“Our pitching staff is scary,” Denham said after shutting out ASU, the nation’s No. 1 offense. “I’m serious, we have six people that can go out and shut out this team and anyone in the nation.”

Another factor working in Arizona’s favor: the Wildcats are shortening games and avoiding stressful, high-leverage situations. They have run-ruled their opponent in five innings in six of nine conference games to this point, a stat McQuillin cited off hand.

“There’s been a couple of series where we’ve been able to throw three different pitchers. To me that’s a testament to the confidence I have in them,” Candrea said. “I think anytime you try to ride one kid, history will tell you that you want to make sure that kid is fresh when you get into postseason, and I think we’ve been able to give (McQuillin) enough innings to keep her sharp. Because there is a balance. You have to throw enough to be sharp, but on the other hand you don’t want to have to overthrow them, and I think we’ve done a very good job to this point.”

Bigger and stronger

Denham, a slim 6-foot-1 righty, said she never really lifted weights before she transferred to Arizona from Louisiana-Lafayette last January and was only able to squat 190 pounds.

Now, Denham is squatting 245 pounds and the added lower-body strength has boosted her velocity by allowing her to explode off the rubber.

“Last year, I was ranging more 59 to 62 (mph). This year, it’s more 64 to 66,” Denham said.

Batters hit .227 against Denham last year. Their average has dropped to .181 this season. Denham has thrown two straight shutouts, allowing a combined two hits in those outings.

Perhaps the only reason Denham has not seen her ERA dip — it was 1.85 last year and 2.13 this year — is because she is walking more batters.

If she can get that under control, Candrea said, she “will be golden.”

“She’s getting more swing and misses, but she’s also been able to throw up in the zone a little bit more and mix in a couple of different pitches that she didn’t throw very much last year,” Mowatt said. “So she’s just become more of a complete pitcher that happens to have that added velocity that allows her pitches to break sharper.”

A different speed

Unlike Denham, McQuillin’s velocity is about the same as it was last year. She is still topping out in the upper 60s. If anything, her average velocity is slower, which is by design.

When Mowatt came on board as Arizona’s pitching coach, she asked UA pitchers what they wanted to improve on.

For McQuillin, it was her change-up, a pitch she knows is important to her success but wasn’t always confident throwing.

“It’s hard for a college pitcher to live without a change-up at this level because one speed isn’t going to cut it with all these quality hitters and big-time stars,” she said.

With Mulipola and Mowatt pumping confidence into McQuillin, she has slowly but surely started to embrace her off-speed stuff.

The light bulb seemed to illuminate on March 2 when McQuillin used a heavy dose of change-ups in a two-hit shutout against No. 23 Minnesota.

“Every time I was thinking change-up, (Mulipola) always called the change-up,” McQuillin said. “It worked really well and it got us through the game.”

Trusting that pitch more and more as the season has progressed, McQuillin has allowed one run in her last 27.1 innings. She most recently threw two shutouts against ASU.

“I definitely think that it’s a missing piece that has helped her get to where she is now,” Mowatt said of McQuillin’s changeup. “Anytime you can mess up a hitter’s timing, you’re going to have the advantage.”

Arizona’s pitching is battle-tested

The Wildcats played at least one ranked team in each of the first five weeks of the season. Some of those opponents included No. 5 Florida, No. 7 Alabama, No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 1 Florida State.

It explains how Arizona pitchers shut out ASU and its high-powered offense three times. They weren’t afraid of the Sun Devils.

“They didn’t have that grace period of easing into great competition,” Mowatt said. “They got it right from the beginning. And I think that has tested them early on, and there’s nothing that they can’t handle this thrown at them.”

“We started off playing tough teams, we stayed playing tough teams and we entered conference after a three-game series against Florida State,” McQuillin added. “So our strength of schedule was really tough, but those are the teams we’re going to play at the end of the season, the type of games that we’re going to be forced to play when it comes down to it.”