Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza’s seventh-inning two-run homer lifted No. 6 Arizona to a 5-3 win over No. 3 UCLA on Thursday in Westwood.
The UA centerfielder lined an 0-2 pitch over the center-field wall to plate Hanah Bowen, who reached on an error to begin the frame.
It was Palomino-Cardoza’s 50th career homer and Arizona’s third long ball against UCLA ace Rachel Garcia, who tallied 15 strikeouts but also threw 140 pitches as the Wildcats handed her her first loss of the season.
The Pac-12 Player and Pitcher of the Year entered with a spotless 20-0 record.
“I was just thinking ‘keep it simple,’” Palomino-Cardoza said of her game-winning homer. “I was seeing her all night and getting down 0-2 I wasn’t expecting a pitch to hit. I saw it and just took my opportunity and swung.”
As if that wasn’t enough, Palomino-Cardoza later made a diving catch for the second out in UCLA’s half of the seventh.
Not only are the Wildcats still alive in the Pac-12 title race—they need to sweep UCLA to win the conference championship—the victory all but ensures they will finish with a top-8 seed and host Super Regionals later this month (assuming they take care of business in Regionals, of course).
Equally important, the Wildcats proved they can beat an elite team and step up in pressure-packed situations. Arizona entered 1-8 against the Top 10 and were swept at home by Washington last weekend.
“We’re going for a sweep and that means a Pac-12 title, so we’re not done here yet,” Palomino-Cardoza said.
Arizona ace Taylor McQuillin got off to a shaky start, but held the Bruins scoreless over the final three innings. She struck out six while allowing eight hits and four walks.
After UCLA singled twice to begin the first inning, Garcia shot a grounder to the right that Bowen couldn’t corral, allowing Bubba Nickles to score from second for the game’s first run.
The Bruins appeared to tack on another run via sacrifice fly later in the inning, but Briana Perez was called out after it was ruled that she left third base early.
UCLA clung to that one-run lead until the fourth when UA first baseman Rylee Pierce homered to right.
The Bruins wasted no time striking back. McQuillin retired the first two batters in the home half of the fourth, before Brianna Tautalafua uncorked a solo homer to right center.
The two-out rally didn’t end there.
A pair of walks and a single loaded the bases for Nickles, who legged out an infield single to score Colleen Sullivan. Kinsley Washington got greedy and tried to score from second on the play, but Pierce fired a dart home to gun her out.
It proved to be a big moment because Jessie Harper cranked a two-run homer—her 24th of the season—to pull the Wildcats even in the top of the fifth.
After McQuillin struck out the side in the sixth, she punched out Taylor Pack for the final out of the seventh.
But not before some drama ensued.
With UCLA down to its final out, Garcia hit a routine fly ball to right center that should have been caught, but Palomino-Cardoza and Jenna Kean pulled up as they converged on it, allowing the ball to plop on the outfield grass.
Garcia advanced to third on a wild pitch but her night ended there, as Pack fanned on a 2-2 off-speed pitch in the dirt.
“She brought it tonight,” Palomino-Cardoza said of McQuillin. “She knows this series means a lot.”
Game 2 is Friday at 5 p.m. MST on the Pac-12 Network.