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Arizona softball lives and dies by defense in loss to UCLA

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

OKLAHOMA CITY — “Defense wins championships.”

If it’s not the coaches’ favorite cliché, it certainly is one of them. Journalists are quite fond of it, too—and Arizona softball’s performance against the UCLA Bruins on Friday night is a good example of why. While defense wasn’t the sole reason the Wildcats fell short in their second game at the Women’s College World Series, it was definitely one of them.

From Arizona’s perspective, the worst part of it was that early on, it looked like defense might be the reason the Wildcats won the game and advanced to the semifinals as the only unbeaten team in the 2019 postseason. Spectacular run-saving plays by usual suspects like Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza dazzled the fans as much as her two home runs did.

After a single, a walk, and an error by shortstop Jessie Harper in the third inning, Rachel Garcia stepped into the batter’s box with the bases loaded. A line-drive off the pitcher’s bat threatened to clear the bases and give the Bruins a three-run lead.

Instead, Peanut Martinez made a spectacular play in right field. Her effort turned it into a sacrifice fly, holding UCLA to a one-run lead and gaining the second out.

Then, there another spectacular play in the fourth inning. This time it was Carli Campbell in left field diving in foul territory to record the out on Kelli Godin and end the inning. The game remained tied at 1-1. The Wildcats looked like they might be gaining the momentum.

But they couldn’t make it last. Just two innings later, Campbell was the one responsible for the error that put the game out-of-reach for the Wildcats. With two runs already in and UCLA leading 3-1, a ball off the bat of Colleen Sullivan clanked off Campbell’s glove. Two more runs scored. The Wildcats were down 5-1. It was over for all intents and purposes.

“I wish I could (explain what happened),” Arizona coach Mike Candrea said. “It’s something that I haven’t seen for a long time. The same kid that makes the great play drops the fly ball. It was just a crazy inning. Honest to God, I wish I had an answer for it. It’s really what we’ve been talking about forever.”

It wasn’t just the dropped ball by Campbell, either. Even when the defense wasn’t officially given an error, there were miscues that cost the team dearly, especially in the seventh inning.

“If you look at that inning,” Candrea said, “we have a relay that had an opportunity to throw a runner out, didn’t do it. We had a fly ball to right field, had a chance to throw a runner out, we didn’t do it. Then, the dropped fly ball. You can’t make mistakes like that at this level, in a game of this stature.

“I was very pleased with the team, I thought, for six innings. Too bad we’re not a little league team, only play six. The seventh inning just really got a little bit out of hand.”

The defensive issues cropped up on Arizona early in the season, and have reared their ugly heads off and on throughout. Despite ranking ninth in fielding percentage during the regular season, the Wildcats committed 21 errors in the 25 games leading into Pac-12 play.

Arizona continued to have issues off-and-on even after conference play started. For the season, they gave up a total of 118 runs. Only 90 of those were earned runs, meaning that almost 24 percent of the runs scored against the Wildcats have come after an error.

The Wildcats committed at least three errors in five games this season with a season-high of four against Alabama on Feb. 16. The Crimson Tide won that game 6-1 with three of those runs being unearned.

The problem? Arizona’s next opponent could be Alabama.

The Wildcats will face the winner of the Florida-Alabama game scheduled for 11:30 a.m. MST on Saturday. Arizona will need to slow the game down if they hope to avoid a similar loss Saturday night.