Sensing some shock in the Arizona fanbase, Mariah Lopez capped Wednesday’s news conference with a message for the Wildcat faithful.
“I just want to say that we aren’t perfect, but we are trying our absolute best and we want to play our best softball in May,” the senior pitcher said. “So just getting to that point and allowing ourselves to trust the process, that’s all that matters to us. So whatever has happened, we’re moving forward.”
In other words, the Wildcats are not hitting the panic button after their three losses in Florida. They are trying to grow from them.
That has to be the silver lining from a surprising week in the Sunshine State. Arizona was shut out by No. 22 UCF, then held to three runs in a three-game series loss to No. 15 Florida State. It was more or less* the same star-studded lineup that had been averaging more than nine runs per game and bashing the ball all over, if not out of, the ballpark.
But the Wildcats finally ran into some quality pitching and got exposed. At least now they know where they stand heading into Pac-12 play, which begins Friday with a critical four-game series at No. 6 Washington.
“I still believe that this is gonna be a very good team, but it’s part of the process,” said UA head coach Mike Candrea. “You’re not going to win every game. I’m sorry, at this level, and in today’s world, it’s very difficult to do. And I’m not going to make any excuses for us. I mean, we were on the road and you have to learn how to deal with it because that’s where you have to win...but I think it was definitely a very good opportunity for us to kind of find out where we’re at right now.
“And, yeah, we stumbled a little bit offensively, which is surprising. But if you know anything about softball, on any given day if a pitcher gets hot and you have the right matchup, things can happen. And truly we faced a kid from Florida State that really was tough on our lefties. She threw a pitch that we probably have not seen much and that’s a ball that’s a screwball that goes up. Most screwballs kind of stay on the same plane and go away. But when you can mix that pitch with a rise, she was very challenging for us. It was just a matter of we were getting runners on base, we were doing what we needed to do, we just could not get that key hit.”
Or even make contact much of the time. The Wildcats struck out 26 times in three games against Florida State and nine times against UCF in Orlando. Before that, they had never fanned more than five times in a game.
“Moving forward, that’s got to be something we’ve got to get better at,” Candrea said. “Our approach at the plate against good pitching cannot be taking long cuts to try to hit the ball out of the ballpark because that’s not going to happen. You have to have a good two-strike approach. You’ve got to put the ball in play.”
Otherwise you live and die by the long ball, and the Wildcats saw how that went. They only went yard once in the four games against UCF and Florida State, a solo shot by Dejah Mulipola. Candrea said Arizona strives to average a run an inning, but not like that.
“If the home run comes, it comes, but you’re going to have to get people on base,” he said. “You’re going to have to execute the short game, moving runners, and sometimes you’re going to score run on a ground ball instead of a base hit. Giving yourself the most opportunities to score is the key.”
Converting them is more of a mental game than anything. Senior shortstop Jessie Harper, who had three hits and three strikeouts against the Seminoles, said Arizona’s struggles might have been a case of them trying to do too much at the plate.
“I think that’s the biggest thing, is that we have so many powerful hitters, but sometimes we might be putting a little bit too much pressure on ourselves as an individual rather than knowing that, ‘hey, Alyssa Palomino is in front of me, Dejah Mulipola is behind me, and I have a great lineup past them,” she said. “We can all hit and we can all work together to pass that bat. But going and facing Washington we just have to play our game. And when we play our game and we all trust each other, we’ll be good to go.”
The Wildcats will certainly have their work cut out for them. They are likely to face Gabbie Plain at least twice. The UW ace is one of the best pitchers in college softball, currently leading the Pac-12 in innings (76), strikeouts (139) and ERA (0.55).
She just so happens to spin the ball like Caylan Arnold—the FSU pitcher who fanned 18 Wildcats in nine innings—and is also the kind of hurler Arizona will need to be able to beat in May when they hope to be playing their best softball in Oklahoma City.
“Every week’s a test, I always say that, and it’s so true,” Candrea said. “Right now I feel good that we’ve finally played some games that we had to really ramp things up. And we weren’t successful as well as we wanted to be, but I think it does prepare us better for what’s ahead of us, and I think that was the whole key.
“Beating people in five innings doesn’t really help when you’re going to get down to the nitty gritty, and from here on out every weekend will be that challenge and I think this team has gotten a taste of that. They kind of know where they need to be to play their best softball and they’re starting to find their own identity, too. It’s hard to find your identity when you’re just out-athleting people. But when you have to really grind a little bit to score a run or to get on base, it’s a completely different approach, so I think the mental game from here on out is going to become even more and more important.”
Candrea said senior second baseman Reyna Carranco is recovering well from a broken thumb but there is no timetable for her return. The All-American suffered the injury three weeks from this Thursday, leaving the Wildcats without one of their best contact hitters during their Florida swoon.
“She’s going to be able to start doing a little bit of throwing, maybe with a baseball, a smaller object, but I think things are going exactly the way that we can expect them to at this point,” Candrea said. “She’s recovering well and staying in the shape and and we just have to wait for the day she can swing a bat.”