OKLAHOMA CITY — It all starts in the circle. That’s been the mantra of coaches and pitchers for decades.
On Thursday morning, Arizona coach Mike Candrea returned to that when the Wildcats’ ace, Taylor McQuillin, outdueled Taran Alvelo, the ace of the Washington Huskies in a 3-1 win that harkened back to games played 20 years ago.
“This game kind of brought me back to the ‘90s, believe it or not,” Candrea said. “I’m probably older than most of you in this room. That’s what softball used to look like. You would compete, compete, compete. It was a pitcher’s duel. All of a sudden someone found a way to score a run. I thought it was quite ironic today that Harper’s home run went out, they came back and tied it up. Both pitchers were phenomenal. I mean, it was just a really good fastpitch softball game today.”
Arizona has played these kinds of games against Washington in recent times. Their series at the beginning of May included two one-run games that were decided by one team’s pitcher making one extra mistake.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, it was their pitcher on both occasions. In Oklahoma City, they finally flipped the script.
Early in the game, Alvelo did not look like the pitcher who dominated the Wildcats earlier in the month. Back then, she gave up only one earned run all weekend.
On Thursday, Alvelo walked Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza to start the game. She ran the count full on two more batters in the first inning, and fell behind five of the first nine batters she faced.
But you can’t count a great pitcher out—and Alvelo is a great pitcher by any account. She quickly settled down, striking out 11 as the game unfolded.
“It’s one thing to have a plan, but I don’t think many of you would understand what it’s like to be in a batter’s box and try to face 70 miles an hour,” Candrea said. “That element right there is even tough no matter what.”
The question was whether McQuillin could match Alvelo on the biggest stage in their sport. Those questions have swirled around McQuillin for the last few years. Were they still valid?
The peripherals said that it depended on what kind of game was played.
Coming into the Women’s College World Series, McQuillin had an ERA of 1.52 and a WHIP of .91. Her Washington counterpart sat at 1.55 and .95.
Alvelo had struck out 268 of the 751 batters she’d faced, compiling a strike-out rate of 36 percent. McQuillin had faced 712 batters, dismissing 214 (30 percent) of them via the strike-out.
McQuillin walked 49 of those who took the batter’s box against her, while Alvelo gave up the base on balls to 41 batters during the year. That’s a mere 5 percent for Alvelo, which compared favorably to the 7 percent who received the free pass from McQuillin.
Then, there were home runs. At the end of Super Regional play last season, McQuillin had given up 23 home runs. This year, she had cut that number to 13, approximately .49 per seven innings pitched. In the other dugout, Alvelo had given up just 10 all season, good for .35 per standard game.
If the game was won by the long ball, the numbers suggested that Washington would win.
The numbers were wrong. McQuillin rose to the occasion with the help of two timely home runs from her own offense, while limiting Washington to one.
“You can be elated or just devastated in one pitch,” said Washington coach Heather Tarr. “What an opportunity. It’s hard, but sucks when it doesn’t go your way. It’s really fun when it does go your way.”
McQuillin gave up the first hit of the game on an infield single to Taryn Atlee. But, just like Alvelo, she kept the scoreboard clean through five innings.
For McQuillin, the wake-up call came from the pitch that didn’t go her way. It came in the sixth inning, when Washington came back to tie the game at one run apiece.
“I think the key thing for me to reset in that game was the home run,” she said. "The first pitch home run right after (Jessie Harper’s homer run) in that inning when Sami Reynolds came up. This is it, we’re in a game now, this is the big moment, we got to handle the pressure and take it and run with it.”
Being able to handle that pressure was not always something Candrea saw in McQuillin or some of her teammates. This season has been different. He has spent the season praising the maturity of his ace and her teammates.
“I think the big thing is to be able to handle the emotions of the game’” he said. “At this stage right now, this game, that’s the center of it. If the game gets too quick, you can’t slow it down, it’s awfully tough to be successful.
“I think we’ve grown in that regard. I think physically we’re hopefully a little better team than we were. That’s our goal. But I think mentally right now, I think our kids have kind of figured out what each of them have to do to kind of slow the game down and be able to handle the big moment, and we’ll see.”
Washington will also see if they have the mental fortitude to come back and find success. They will have to do it out of the losers’ bracket, but Alvelo believes that they have what it takes. This setback will have no effect on them.
“It’s already behind me,” she said. “We’re ready to go. We were talking about it; it’s not over for us. It’s one game. We have a road ahead of us and we’re ready. One pitch at a time.”
Arizona’s road will continue on Friday when they face UCLA for the right to move directly to the semifinals. Washington will pick up their fight on Saturday when they try to keep their season alive against Minnesota.