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What happened to Arizona softball’s offense at the Women’s College World Series?

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Photo by Ryan Kelapire

OKLAHOMA CITY—The Arizona Wildcats wound up their first trip to the Women’s College World Series in nine years with a 1-2 record, going 6-2 overall in the postseason. But what got them a few of those pre-WCWS victories, and many of the others during the regular season, didn't show up in OKC.

While Arizona had a much stronger pitching performance this season than in recent years, it was always going to be offense that carried the team. In the postseason, both the power and the ability to turn the order over diminished.

Arizona had five players who hit over .300 for the season. Even against top 10 opponents, Reyna Carranco, Jessie Harper and Malia Martinez were good for a hit at least one-third of the time.

Despite the strong out-of-conference schedule that saw the Wildcats match up against every member of the WCWS field, they couldn’t replicate that once time for Oklahoma City rolled around.

Only Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza and Martinez were able to provide consistent offensive threats for the entirety of the NCAA Tournament. Both hit over .400 in their eight postseason appearances; more Wildcats hit below .250 than hit over .300.

Martinez and Carranco were the only players who carried that to Oklahoma City, though. Martinez went 4 for 10 on the big stage, while Carranco went 3 for 9.

When the Wildcats were at their most successful this season, the bottom of the order was getting hits and turning things over for Palomino-Cardoza or Harper to knock them in. That wasn’t the case in the postseason.

Carranco took over the No. 6 spot, and put up an admirable .286 for the duration of the postseason. When considering the injury to her hands, going 6 for 21 in the postseason and 3 for 9 in Oklahoma was nothing to sneeze at—especially given the alternatives.

Peanut Martinez added a .292 average for the eight postseason games, but had almost all of her success during Regionals and Super Regionals; she went just 1 for 9 at the WCWS.

The problems throughout the postseason came at No. 5 (.174), No. 7 (.250), and No. 9 (.235); those three hitters went 0 for 22 in the three Oklahoma City games. The injury Carranco suffered against Washington fundamentally remade the order, and the newly-constituted lineup simply couldn’t provide the same offensive punch that Arizona relied on when it opened the Pac-12 season with six straight series wins.

While Carranco’s injury gave the bottom of the order a cosmetic improvement by reshuffling the deck chairs, the hitters who regularly bat six through nine weren’t able to set the table. When Palomino-Cardoza hit two home runs Friday against UCLA, she did it with no one on base. The damage to the Bruins was minimal.

Truth be told, both Palomino-Cardoza and Harper had their own struggles once they arrived at the WCWS, though. Arizona’s lead-off hitter got just two hits—both home runs—in her nine at-bats. Harper—who ended the season leading the national home-run race with her 29 long balls—was able to scratch out just a .100 average in her 10 at-bats.

The reality of the situation is that this was an altogether predictable result based on Arizona’s hitting against top-10 pitching early in the season. While many believed that the Wildcats had turned the corner with late-season success against UCLA, perhaps too much emphasis was put on a single series when the numbers against the top teams had a consistent story to tell; UCLA was the outlier.

The Wildcats went 1-6 against the top 10 in nonconference play. In her 21 at-bats during that period, Palomino-Cardoza hit just .238. Despite her two long balls in OKC, she hit just .222 in the WCWS. Most of her postseason damage was done in Tucson during the Regional and Super Regional rounds when she went 9 for 18.

Dejah Mulipola went 2 for 9 in OKC. The .222 batting average was fairly consistent when compared to the .250 she hit against the top 10 early in the season. She, too, did her postseason damage in Tucson, when five of her 15 at-bats in the early rounds turned into hits.

As a team, Arizona hit .305 over the three weeks of postseason play. The problem was that those numbers reflect dominance over a lot of mid-range teams that it handled in the early rounds.

Once it got real, and the Wildcats were back to facing the top teams of the game, that team average bottomed out. As a team, they hit just .167 against Washington, UCLA and Alabama.

What story does it tell? That pitching is vital in the Women’s College World Series. Even on the best day, failing two-thirds of the time is considered good for a hitter. Putting too many eggs in the “offense” basket is a problem when facing off against the best in the game.

Arizona was able to finally get back to the Women’s College World Series this season, getting a huge monkey off its back. The Wildcats even put together a victory over a team (Washington) that had swept them mere weeks before. They certainly showed that they are back in the mix.

Now, they need to take the next step to get to the top of the mountain and win a ninth WCWS title. That next step is the kind of superior pitching that sat in the other dugouts. The kind of pitching that can neutralize even a team with the offensive prowess Arizona displayed for much of the season.