Even when things went south, the butterflies kept flying in formation.
After blowing a three-run lead in the third, the Arizona Wildcats responded by scoring six runs in the fourth on their way to a 12-3 drubbing of Auburn in Sunday’s Tucson Regional Championship.
Arizona (45-12) advances to Super Regionals for the sixth straight season. The Wildcats will host 11th-seeded Ole Miss next weekend in a best-of-three series with a spot in the Women’s College World Series on the line.
“At this time of year that’s what it’s all about, being able to handle the big moment, positively or negatively,” said UA coach Mike Candrea. “My big thing to them last week is everyone’s got butterflies, but the key is to be able to get those butterflies flying in formation, and they’ve grasped on to that.
“We’re one step closer to where we want to be. Good performance today.”
UA shortstop Jessie Harper went 5 for 5 with three home runs and five RBI, giving her an NCAA-best 28 long balls on the season. She is the first Wildcat to log a three-homer game since Hallie Wilson in April 2015 and the first to have five hits in a game since Sam Banister in 2009.
Harper, who said last week that she doesn’t view herself as a home-run hitter, wasn’t amazed by her big day.
“I’m not really thinking too much about it as long as I can help the team out,” she said. “We always say let’s pass the bat, get the next person up to bat. That’s what we live by and keeping our butterflies in formation, not letting anything get too big for us.”
Harper spearheaded an Arizona offense that mashed 14 hits Sunday, with seven players accounting for at least one.
Harper may have had the gaudy stat line, but it was a walk, four singles, a pair of Auburn errors, and a three-run homer by Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza that were the driving forces in Arizona’s big six-run inning.
Hanah Bowen and Peanut Martinez both knocked RBI singles to right to give Arizona a 5-3 lead, and Bowen later scored when a low throw by Auburn third baseman Tannon Snow allowed Carli Campbell to reach on a sacrifice bunt.
Palomino-Cardoza then blasted her 16th homer of the season to clear the bases before Auburn even recorded an out.
“I think everyone on this team right now understands their role and they know what they’re preparing themselves for each and every day,” Candrea said. “As a coach that makes it nice to know that you can call upon someone and they’re ready for it.”
Palomino-Cardoza also drove in Arizona’s first run, a bloop single to center, to put UA up 1-0 in the third.
The next batter, Harper, roped a two-run homer to left to make it a three-run cushion, which the Tigers, the designated home team, immediately erased in the bottom half of the inning.
Their rally started when Martinez could not handle a sinking liner in right field, resulting in a two-base error. Casey McCrackin then laced a triple down the right-field line to plate Auburn’s first run. She later scored on an RBI groundout by Alyssa Rivera.
Snow then clubbed a solo homer off Alyssa Denham to tie the game, though very briefly.
A half-inning later, the Tigers were trailing by six. Then by seven. Then by nine.
“It just means that we can punch back,” said Harper, who homered in the sixth and seventh. “One inning is not going to define you. It’s a long game. I liked how we were able to score almost every inning and just keep that momentum going.”
Other than the shaky third, Denham was spotless in her first postseason start, allowing four hits in a complete-game effort.
The lanky right-hander struck out 10, one off her season high, and walked one, retiring nine of the last 10 batters she faced.
“The best feeling ever as a pitcher is when you make a couple of mistakes and your teammates come back the next inning and double the amount of runs,” Denham said. “It shows how much they fight for all of us, and then it just gave me so much confidence from there on out because I knew my teammates had my back.”
Missing their top two pitchers to injury, the Tigers started hard-throwing lefty Lexie Handley, who was relieved by Chardonnay Harris after Harper’s first homer.
Harris surrendered seven runs (four earned) in 2.2 innings before Handley reentered the circle.
Harper hit two homers off Handley and one off Harris. The junior’s 28 homers are tied for the fourth-most in UA single-season history and the most since Stacie Chambers hit 31 in 2009.
Harper is also just 27 shy of tying Katiyana Mauga’s all-time record.
A young fan approached Harper for an autograph after the game. That signed ball could be a hot commodity one day.
“We’ve had quite a few pretty good home-run hitters here,” Candrea said, rattling off names like Laura Espinoza, Jenny Dalton, and Leah Braatz. “So the great thing about our tradition is you get to get in line because someone has probably done it. (Harper) will definitely go down in the record books and the history of Arizona softball, but she’s not done. She’s a junior. And it’s one thing to have power, but it’s another thing when you can put that power on display in games. Especially big games like today.”
Postgame press conference
Hear what Mike Candrea, Jessie Harper and Alyssa Denham had to say about beating Auburn and advancing to Super RegionalsPosted by AZ Desert Swarm on Sunday, May 19, 2019