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What to know about Arizona softball for the NCAA Tournament

arizona-softball-ncaa-tournament-seed-bracket-2019-regional-tucson-wildcats-stats-rankings Photo by Ryan Kelapire

The Arizona softball team will begin postseason play this week, looking to make its first Women’s College World Series appearance since 2010.

The eight-time national champions went 42-12 overall and 19-5 in the Pac-12 in the regular season, doing enough to earn a top-8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, meaning they will host Regionals and Super Regionals before a trip to Oklahoma City (assuming they advance that far).

If you have not been following the Wildcats this season or simply need a refresher, here are some things to know about them as they enter the NCAA Tournament.

They dig the long ball

Arizona leads the nation in home runs, blasting 99 in 54 games. It’s a team effort, too, as four players have hit 13 or more while senior first baseman Rylee Pierce has eight.

A key this postseason will be finding ways to score without the long ball, something that has been an issue at times, especially against elite pitching.

This junior class is epic

Arizona is primarily led by a strong group of juniors.

Power-hitting shortstop Jessie Harper is tied for first in the nation in homers (25) and owns the Pac-12 lead in RBI (64). With 62 career long balls, she has a legitimate shot of breaking UA’s all-time home run record currently held by Katiyana Mauga (92).

Centerfielder Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza is hitting .382 with 15 homers and 56 RBI, while playing stellar defense in center field, never mind that she has torn both her ACLs during her UA career.

Third baseman Malia Martinez is having a breakout season, posting career highs in pretty much every offensive category including batting average (.321), homers (13), and RBI (53).

A member of the U.S. Olympic Team, Dejah Mulipola is arguably the best catcher in the country. She has 21 homers, 51 RBI and a team-high 39 walks. Teams generally refrain from trying to steal bases on the Wildcats because of Mulipola’s arm.

And here is a crazy stat: UA pitchers have only thrown nine wild pitches all season, thanks to Mulipola’s blocking ability. That is three times fewer than their opponents have thrown.

Second baseman Reyna Carranco (five homers) does not have the same kind of power numbers as the aforementioned players, but she took home the Pac-12 batting title by hitting .433. She is terrific in the field too, making the conference’s all-defensive team.

Reyna is injured

Arizona could be without Carranco in the postseason—or at least parts of it. She suffered a broken hand and broken thumb on May 4 when she was hit by a pitch while checking her swing.

The Wildcats are taking her recovery week by week, but broken bones typically take four to six weeks to heal, so it seems unlikely Carranco will be able to play in regionals. Her status from there on is anyone’s guess.

Obviously the sooner she returns, the better Arizona’s chances are of not only making it to Oklahoma City, but doing some damage while they’re there.

However, sophomore Hanah Bowen has done a nice job in Carranco’s stead, entering the postseason on a three-game hitting streak. She hit her first career homer in Saturday’s win at UCLA.

McQuillin is having a career season, but has struggled lately

Equipped with a sharper change-up and in her second year under pitching coach Taryne Mowatt, senior ace Taylor McQuillin is having a career season, entering the NCAA Tournament with a 20-7 record and a career-best 1.59 ERA.

The hard-throwing lefty was selected with the sixth pick in the NPF Draft by the Cleveland Comets, whom she will join once the season concludes.

The challenge at times for McQuillin has been limiting walks and homers. In her last three starts, she has allowed 12 runs (all earned) on nine walks and 21 hits, three of which left the ballpark.

Those outings came against Washington (twice) and UCLA, the type of teams Arizona will need to beat to make a deep postseason run.

It’s a staff

The Wildcats have shown a new willingness to dig into their bullpen this season.

McQuillin enters the postseason fresher than usual, having pitched roughly 75 fewer innings than she did as a junior when she posted a 1.68 ERA.

No. 2 starter Alyssa Denham (9-5, 2.08 ERA) has seen her usage decline too. The reason is Bowen (3-0, 0.48 ERA) and Gina Snyder (5-0, 1.95 ERA) have emerged as reliable alternatives.

Snyder, a redshirt senior from Tucson, got the win and pitched five strong innings in Saturday’s regular-season finale against a potent UCLA offense.

McQuillin and Denham will start most, if not all, of the games in the postseason, but head coach Mike Candrea can afford to have a quick hook if they run into trouble, or if Arizona wants to play the matchups.

With all this said, the staff still has to prove it can consistently pitch at the level required to reach OKC.

Defense generally hasn’t been a problem

Like any team, the Wildcats are prone to defensive miscues, but their defense has generally been good this season, ranking second in the Pac-12 in fielding percentage (.976).

They have committed 34 errors in 54 games. Oddly, most of those have come at home.

The Wildcats are battle-tested

There won’t be any surprises for the Wildcats in the postseason.

Arizona had the second-toughest schedule in the NCAA, facing the likes of No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 4 Alabama, No. 5 Florida State, No. 9 Florida, No. 12 Minnesota, No. 14 Oklahoma State and No. 16 James Madison in addition to conference foes like No. 2 Washington and No. 3 UCLA.

The Wildcats struggled to beat those elite teams, losing eight of their first nine against the top 10, but they are entering the postseason on a high note after taking two of three against UCLA in Westwood.