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What we learned about Arizona softball at the Hillenbrand Invitational

COLLEGE SOFTBALL: FEB 15 OKLAHOMA AT ARIZONA Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats ended the Hillenbrand Invitational with a 9-1 record. Their extra-inning loss to No. 2 Oklahoma was a heartbreaker mostly because they had every opportunity to win the game.

For coverage off all five games, head to our softball section. Here are some additional takeaways.

The highs and lows of Alyssa Denham

Make no mistake. When Alyssa Denham is good, she’s very good. Her no-hitter against Long Beach State is Exhibit A in that case. For two straight weeks, the senior has also been the one called upon to take the circle in Arizona’s most challenging games.

When the Wildcats opened the season at the Kajikawa Classic, it was Denham who faced No. 12 Tennessee. A week later, it was once again Denham who got the call in an even bigger game against the No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners.

Her outing against Long Beach State was a demonstration of what Denham can be when she’s on. The Beach is no slouch. The Wildcats squeaked past LBSU by a score of 2-1 on Thursday behind the arm of Mariah Lopez. Then, the Beach went out and beat Oklahoma early on Saturday.

Against Tennessee, Denham was fairly effective. She gave up five hits, but four of them were singles. She walked two and threw two wild pitches, but gave up no runs in a run-rule game that went only five innings.

In her three wins this season, she has given up zero earned runs, six hits, three walks and two wild pitches in 16.1 innings. Only one of her hits has been for extra bases, and that was a double. After the Tennessee game, she had dropped her ERA to a season-low 1.54.

There have been problems in her three no-decisions, though.

Denham has a 5.25 ERA in no-decisions, including allowing a long ball in each. She has also hit three batters and walked four.

Perhaps the larger problem is that two of those three no-decisions came against teams that should not have given Arizona much trouble.

There’s no shame in having 4.67 ERA against Oklahoma. There are larger concerns about struggling against teams like Seattle University (3-7) and the University of Northern Iowa (3-6), though. In those two games, Denham had a 5.65 ERA.

Against UNI, she was replaced by Lopez in the fifth inning after allowing the Panthers to extend their lead over the Wildcats to 5-3. Arizona would win by one in eight innings.

Against the Sooners, Candrea acknowledged that he should have put Lopez in earlier.

“I thought Denham did a good job,” he said. “The toughest thing in this game is knowing when to take a damned pitcher out. Hindsight’s easy, but I thought Mariah came in and did exceptional. She proved to me tonight that she’s got another gear.”

Lopez would eventually take the loss, but she came in and gave the Wildcats a chance. In four innings, she gave up one hit and no earned runs. She struck out five and had one intentional base on balls. It dropped her season ERA to 0.84.

While Candrea may have wanted to avoid the extra drama of Lopez pitching against her former team on Saturday afternoon, it might be the time to give the transfer the ball in the big games. She and Denham, along with the rest of the pitchers, can form a formidable staff, but that “extra gear” would be useful to Arizona from the start of games against their top opponents.

Power at the top

After starting the season with his speedy freshmen at leadoff, Arizona coach Mike Candrea went back to last year’s table-setter, Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza. Early in the week, Candrea said that the top of the order would probably continuing shifting for a while.

“I still believe that we have a couple young kids that could fit that leadoff role,” Candrea said. “The first weekend, Janelle (Meono) was just uncharacteristically swinging at some bad pitches and not being selective. And that just comes from maturity. And so I think part of the process for us is to keep running them in and seeing what we can do. That’s what I felt like would be an advantage for us this year is we have some different options. And I really just kind of felt against Tennessee putting Palomino on top of the order again, young pitcher in the circle, doesn’t want to start the game off facing someone like her.”

He stuck with the intimidation factor of Palomino-Cardoza for much of the Hillenbrand Invitational. It would seem like the trade-off in that situation would be opportunities for Palomino-Cardoza to get runs batted in. If there are fewer opportunities, there definitely aren’t fewer successes.

APC hit third in the lineup for the first four games of the season. She had a total of eight RBI over those four games. In the next four games, she hit at the top of the order and still had eight RBI. In the final game against Long Beach State, she moved back to third in the order and had one RBI.

With the emergence of freshman Bella Dayton, the point may be moot now. Not only does Dayton have a .423 on-base percentage, but she is 5 for 5 on stolen bases. If that continues, the Wildcats may be able to move back to the traditional lineup with speed at the top and power in the middle.

“I think Bella’s got a chance, whether she’s ready for that moment against quality teams, time will tell,” Candrea said. “But she’s very capable of it. She’s a very intense player and she’s gonna make something happen. I mean, her mistakes are always gonna be aggressive—and I like that. Someday you’re gonna look back at her and say, ‘God damn she can play.’”

Questions about the bottom

With lots of options at the top of the order, it may become necessary to look at more options in the bottom three. As is typical early in the season, several players have rotated in and out of those spots.

Nine different players have batted seventh through ninth so far this season. Six of them are hitting very well, with junior outfielder Jenna Kean having the most success.

Kean has made four starts and two appearances as a pinch runner. She’s batting .500 with four hits and a walk while striking out only once. She also has three of the Wildcats’ 12 stolen bases, going 3 for 4 in that department.

Marissa Schuld is also shining towards the bottom of the order, usually as the designated player. The diminutive pitcher and power hitter has two extra base hits, including one homer, while batting .438. She has walked once and been hit by a pitch once, but has only struck out twice.

Schuld has seven hits, collecting at least one in every game she’s stepped into the batter’s box. She even accomplished the relatively rare feat of batting in a game when she also pitched, although she only took the circle for one inning.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are some hitters who are really struggling. Meono was moved out of the leadoff spot during the Kajikawa Classic. She has returned to the bottom of the order, but she continues to face difficulties there.

Meono has started three games while batting in the bottom of the order. She has two hits on the season, one since moving down in the order. Her average now sits at .105 and she has four strikeouts against just one walk.

As Candrea said, though, he believes his young players just need time to develop. Continuing to put her in the lineup is likely the best option for now as the freshman gets comfortable in college ball.

More difficult to justify is continuing to start a junior who is struggling just as much. Peanut Martinez has made eight appearances this season including five starts in right field. Her batting average has plunged to .111 as she has collected only two hits, neither of which has gone for extra bases.

With only one walk, Martinez is not getting on in other ways, either. She’s sporting a .158 on-base percentage. She also has four strike-outs.

Last season, Martinez started out slow before improving in mid-season and hovering around .300 for most of the year. She ended the season with a .280 average, so there’s reason to believe that she will improve. Still, with several outfielders batting over .300 right now, it poses the question of whether it’s better to go with the hot hand.