Home sweet home?
No. 9 Arizona returns to Hillenbrand Stadium this weekend for a four-game series against Oregon State, their first action at Rita since Feb. 28 when they beat the Beavers 3-2 in a non-conference setting.
Oh, how much can change in a month.
The Wildcats (14-5, 0-2) left that game unbeaten and returned with five losses after some tough moments in Florida and Washington. They enter Friday’s series opener on a three-game skid and losers of four of their last five.
An ice-cold offense is to blame. Arizona has produced just six runs during this 1-4 stretch, including three runs in two losses in the rain at Washington last weekend.
The days of run-ruling teams feel like an eternity ago, but maybe the Tucson sunshine—and a small smattering of UA fans—is exactly what the Wildcats need to heat back up. The Beavers (13-7, 2-1) being the first unranked team Arizona has faced since March 10 could help too.
“It’s good to be back at home and I’m hoping this will be the recipe we need to get our offense going,” UA head coach Mike Candrea said.
The Wildcats have not hit for average (.202) or power (two homers) during this five-game lull. They have struggled to get timely hits and are striking out more than 10 times per game. They are working to shore up their swings, which is more of a mental game than anything else.
“If you’re not seeing the ball well, then you start making early decisions,” Candrea said. “And when you’re facing people that can really spin the ball and make it break, that’s not a good thing. You have to be able to be calm and trust your eyes, and so we’re trying to do some things right now to get back to focusing on how well we see the ball. And the other part is get your mind right. I mean, that’s every athlete’s challenge. There’s only so much you can do as a coach to feed them confidence, but then they’ve got to be the ones that can walk in the game and do what they need to do to feel good about themselves.”
While Candrea is doing what he can to jumpstart the offense—including making several lineup changes—he is a firm believer in the law of averages. In his mind, one crack of the bat is all it could take for the Wildcats to bust this slump in a big way.
“(Jessie) Harper will square up a ball and that will be it,” he said. “I think you have to look at we’ve been in every ballgame that we’ve lost, and it could have gone either way, so I’m not hitting the panic button. I just think we need to continue to do what we do and hopefully we’ll get on a roll because hitting is very catching. Once a few people start, then everyone kind of follows. And it’s catching the opposite way too, and that’s kind of where we’ve been.”
Maybe the most surprising thing is that Arizona’s seniors are some of the ones struggling the most. All-Americans like Harper and Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza have gone hitless in their last three and five games, respectively. All-conference third baseman Malia Martinez was even pulled for a pinch hitter in the series finale at Washington.
They could be feeling the effects of the COVID-extended offseason.
“Well, you think about this experienced lineup, the last time they really were in game mode facing good pitching for a long period of time was at the College World Series two years ago, so there’s been a little bit of a gap and I think it takes some time,” Candrea said. “But there’s a lot of distractions that these kids have had to go through and it’s not always easy. And so I don’t know exactly where their minds are right now. I think they’re embracing the opportunity to play again, and it’s just not coming as quickly as we thought it would.”
Harper said last week that some hitters, including herself, might be putting too much pressure on themselves to come up with the big hit instead of focusing on getting on base and trusting that the hitters behind them will do the same.
In other words, they should be following Dejah Mulipola’s lead. The senior catcher reached base nine times in the last four games, launching both of Arizona’s homers and drawing seven (!) walks. The Olympian is staying patient at the plate and sticking to short, compact swings, letting pitchers supply the power.
“One thing Coach always says is pressure is a privilege, and I’ve actually caught myself in the game saying that to myself maybe when there’s runners on and I’m coming up to bat with two outs,” Mulipola said. “I mean, that’s a lot of pressure and I just slow it down and I say pressure is a privilege and I get up there and I control what I can control and everything else is out of my hands.
“But the advice that I gave to the younger girls on the team is just to relax because obviously if you go up there tense, your eyes are not gonna be able to see the pitches. And that’s just a scientific thing. You can talk to our trainer about it. It’s literally proven that if you go up there tense you will not see the ball. So I think just slowing down, Coach talks about intentional breathing, getting your breath aligned, and just being where your feet are. That’s very important, whether you’re on defense or whether you’re hitting.”
Mulipola can sense that her teammates’ confidence is down, so she sends them motivational messages to try to get them in the right frame of mind. She has been reading a book called “Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable,” written by Tim Grover, who used to train Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.
One of the central themes of the book is “don’t think,” which is more or less what Candrea is preaching to his team entering this homestand.
“The challenge for us is just to stick with our process and try to get rid of all the clutter that you may have or the distractions that you may have,” he said. “Clear your mind and trust what you see and trust that you can put a good swing on it, because the swing hasn’t changed. We just have to find a way to get back to doing the little things. Maybe it’s not so much about your approach at the plate, but playing the game 60 feet at a time. Getting a leadoff runner on, moving runners, playing more situational softball.”
4-game series schedule
- Friday, March 26 — 6 p.m. PT
- Saturday, March 27 — 2 p.m. PT
- Saturday, March 27 — 4:30 p.m. PT
- Sunday, March 28 — Noon PT
All games can be watched on Arizona Live Stream-2. Fans—about 400 of them—will be allowed in Hillenbrand Stadium for the first time this season.
“I think I’m more excited for the younger girls who haven’t gotten that chance yet,” Mulipola said. “I mean, it was really weird to play a couple weekends ago back at home with no fans. So now just to get a little taste of that and to have my family coming out here this weekend, I’m so excited and I’m excited for the team.”