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What we learned about Arizona softball at the Hillenbrand Invitational

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Photo by Ryan Kelapire

The Arizona softball team opened the season with five wins at the Hillenbrand Invitational, taking down Seattle U, Southern Utah and New Mexico in an empty Hillenbrand Stadium. Our recaps can be found in our softball section, and below are some additional takeaways from the opening weekend.

Sharlize Palacios will still have a big role this season

The redshirt freshman is in an interesting situation this season. She was Arizona’s starting catcher in the shortened 2020 campaign, but obviously that role will belong to Dejah Mulipola now that she’s back from Team USA.

That means designated player is where Palacios will get most of her playing time. Several other players will be vying for at-bats there, too, but Palacios is holding it down so far, hitting .385 with two homers and eight RBI in the Hillenbrand Invitational.

Palacios did make two starts behind the plate as well. We know Mulipola will be catching when it matters, but Palacios getting reps back there is big for her development—and so Mulipola can get some rest every now and then.

Remember, Pac-12 series have a doubleheader this year and Mulipola is rejoining Team USA right after the season ends. You don’t want to overwork her.

Peanut Martinez picked up where she left off

The 2020 season ending when it did was a tough break for Peanut. She had nine hits in her final seven games, including three homers and four doubles.

The good news is she has picked up right where she left off, with four hits and four RBI in nine at-bats including a homer in the Hillenbrand Invitational.

Martinez split starts with Bella Dayton in right field as Mike Candrea made a conscious effort to get all four corner outfielders some ABs, but Martinez is looking like a solid starter. She was a career .275 hitter in her first four seasons, so it would be huge if she can continue emerging as a consistent offensive threat. It adds even more length to a lethal lineup.

“I feel like I’ve been more relaxed, taking my deep breath in between each pitch and just making sure that I’m swinging at my pitch instead of the pitcher’s pitch,” Martinez said. “Because I feel like a couple times last year I was out on my front foot or swinging at a pitcher’s pitch instead of getting what I know I can hit and square up.”

Janelle Meono is looking like the player Candrea thought she was

The redshirt freshman struggled in 2020, posting a strikeout rate—six Ks in 46 at-bats—that stunned Candrea, who said she was always putting the ball in play during their preseason scrimmages.

That’s what Meono did in the Hillenbrand Invitational, tallying five hits and a walk in seven plate appearances. The speedy outfielder has scored four times and stolen a base, a true lightning rod in the No. 9 spot.

Every team benefits from the bottom of the order turning it over to the top, but especially this Arizona squad, which has some of the best hitters in the country up there. If players like Palacios, Peanut and Meono can keep this up, Arizona could have the top offense in the nation.

“I think we can be strong one through nine, and it’s been a while since I can really say that,” Candrea said. “I think the bottom of this order can, number one, be explosive as you saw today with Carlie (Scupin) hitting the home run. But number two, being able to turn the lineup around and get back to (Alyssa) Palomino and that group because no one wants to really pitch to them. So it’s a real blessing that we have.”

Malia Martinez could be in for a big year

Nobody wants to pitch to the top of the order, and rightfully so. Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza drew five walks this weekend, while Jessie Harper coaxed four, and Mulipola and Reyna Carranco each drew two.

Malia Martinez reaped the benefits.

The super senior had five hits and drove in eight runs on the weekend, tied with Palacios for second-most on the team. Martinez may join Mulipola, Harper and APC in the 20 home run club this season. She already has three long balls to her name, as many as she had in 25 games in 2020. Her career high is 14, set in 2019.

Hanah Bowen and Devyn Netz are the No. 3 and No. 4 pitchers right now

Arizona has five pitchers and Jessie Fontes was the only one who did not get a start this weekend. From that, we can infer that she is behind junior Hanah Bowen and freshman Devyn Netz in the pecking order. That’s fine. Fontes is a freshman. She has plenty of time to develop and will be needed next season when seniors Alyssa Denham and Mariah Lopez are no longer with the program.

Besides, Bowen and Netz both made a strong case for more innings. Bowen threw a no-hitter against New Mexico and Netz tossed three scoreless frames against Southern Utah after shaking off some early jitters and allowing an RBI double in the first.

Bowen is a cerebral right-hander who mixes pitches and pounds the strike zone. Netz is a flamethrower who regularly sits in the mid-to-upper 60s and could be Arizona’s ace in 2022 and beyond.

“She’s a good athlete who is very competitive, works really hard, and she’s going to get better and better,” Candrea said. “Velocity is there. She’s going to be a good one down the road.”

It will be interesting to see what kind of spots Netz, Bowen and Fontes are deployed in when the schedule gets tougher. Lopez and Denham pitched 93 percent of Arizona’s innings in the shortened 2020 season and it will be imperative that the Wildcats find a third option to keep their aces fresh and so that opposing offenses don’t get used to seeing the same arms all the time.

It’s too early to find any flaws, so just be glad they’re back on the field

Aside from some fielding errors and impatient swings on offspeed pitches, it’s hard to find any holes in a team that has four mercy-rule wins in five games and a 45-5 run differential. We’ll learn more once the schedule stiffens.

The most important takeaway from the first weekend is that Arizona softball is finally back on the field after the longest offseason ever.

“We just gotta get better,” Candrea said. “I think the thing that was good this weekend was being able to play in an empty stadium and realize how different it is. And sometimes you have to kind of supply your own energy as a player. And I’m not so sure that they’re all used to that. And so it was different. You know, the music was off, no fans, it’s just a completely different atmosphere than what we’re used to here at Hillenbrand, so I’m waiting for fans to get back in here. Believe me, I think it makes a huge difference. But we got to play the game and so I think this weekend was a good indication of what we need to prepare for.”

Arizona is better than Washington...for now

UCLA is the top team in the country until someone proves otherwise. So it goes when you are the defending national champs and have an unbelievable roster that features two Olympians.

The rest of the pecking order in the Pac-12 isn’t so clear. Washington was ranked higher than Arizona in the preseason polls, but the Huskies have struggled this season, particularly in the circle.

UW has a 3.39 ERA, the second-worst mark in the Pac-12. It’s not like their schedule has been difficult, either. Their first 10 games have been against mid-majors. They lost to Nevada 8-5 this weekend and would have lost to Dixie State the week prior had they not scored three runs in the seventh in a comeback win.

UW ace Gabbie Plain has only allowed three runs in 33 innings. The rest of the staff? 27 runs in 29 innings. Yikes.

For now, Arizona is the better team.