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Why is Arizona softball struggling against ranked teams?

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

Arizona softball hasn’t lived up to expectations this season, currently sitting at fourth in the Pac-12 despite being picked to finish second.

The Wildcats have fallen outside of the Top 10 in some polls and don’t have the look of an elite team. They are 2-8 against ranked opponents, an alarming stat with the postseason only a month away.

Why has Arizona struggled against quality teams? Here’s a look at some of the problems.

Clutch hits have been hard to come by

Despite having one of the most decorated lineups in the country, the Wildcats only have 11 hits in 70 at-bats with runners in scoring position against ranked teams. That’s a .157 average for a team that is hitting .323 for the season.

Here’s how they’ve hit in those situations against each ranked opponent (along with their record against that opponent):

  • 0 for 3 at UCF (0-1)
  • 5 for 17 at FSU (1-2)
  • 1 for 12 at Washington (0-2)
  • 5 for 38 at ASU (1-3)

Another key stat: seven of Arizona’s eight losses against ranked teams have come by two runs or less. If you’re an optimist, you see that and think, “Hey, Arizona will be fine once those clutch hits come.”

If you’re a pessimist, you doubt those hits ever will come.

“I’ve been harping on them for the last three or four weeks about just getting their eyes right, getting their eyes where they need to be and hunting a pitch that they can hit,” head coach Mike Candrea said Wednesday. “And I think sometimes in our process we have not done a good job of making them have opportunities to instill that in batting practice, so I’ve changed completely this week. Our BP is no longer to throw fatties and let them feel good and hit the ball out of the ballpark. It’s more of a live BP, live pitcher and having live at-bats, and I’m hoping that will help.”

Arizona pitchers are giving up too many homers

The Wildcats have outhit their ranked opponents 56-48 but have been burned by the long ball, surrendering 11 while hitting six.

UA allowed eight homers in the ASU series alone—seven of which were two-run shots. That’s a big reason they lost all three Pac-12 games of that series even though they outhit the Sun Devils 20-18. (Another being that Arizona only hit 2 for 26 with runners in scoring position.)

If you go back to the two games at Washington, the Huskies scored half of their six runs with a pair of long balls, including a walk-off in the series finale.

Mariah Lopez in particular has struggled to keep the ball in the yard. She’s allowed 13 homers in 51.1 innings this season after allowing just four in 71 innings in 2020. She served up three long balls in her lone start at ASU, an 8-1 loss. Lopez’s earned run average sits at 2.73, almost twice as high as her career ERA (1.57).

This isn’t all on her, though. All four UA pitchers who saw time in the circle against ASU gave up at least one homer. Arizona has allowed 26 homers in 209 innings this season, about one every eight innings. They allowed 36 in 400 innings in 2019, about one every 11 innings.

Candrea was clamoring for more consistency after Saturday’s doubleheader at ASU.

“We need some help,” he said. “We need to at least have an idea what we’re going to get. So hopefully moving forward we can shake some things up.”

Some potential solutions include more innings for Hanah Bowen—who has the best ERA among Arizona’s three most-used pitchers—and/or doing more mixing and matching like ASU did last weekend to great success. The Sun Devils used Lindsay Lopez and Allison Royalty in all three Pac-12 games of the series, swapping them midway through each game so Arizona couldn’t get a beat on them.

Candrea hasn’t usually been one to take that approach.

“I’ve kind of grown up in the (mindset that) if you got a horse, you ride them,” he said. “And I’m sure as we move throughout this, there’s gonna be times that we’re going to have to throw two pitchers or three pitchers, especially with the four-game series.”

Arizona hasn’t been healthy

The series opener at ASU was the only time the Wildcats have been at full strength against a ranked opponent this season.

Second baseman Reyna Carranco missed the UCF, Florida State and Washington games with a broken thumb, while center fielder Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza missed the final three games of the ASU series after tweaking her knee on the final play of the series opener.

We’re talking about two All-Americans here, so there’s a noticeable void when one of them is out of the lineup. Carranco hits for a high average and APC is one of the most feared power hitters in the country. Both are terrific defenders too.

The good news is APC should be able to return to the lineup at some point this season after avoiding any structural damage in her knee.

Arizona is pressing

The injuries can’t explain everything. This is a deep, experienced team.

Arizona has two stud redshirt freshmen in Janelle Meoño and Sharlize Palacios and starts battle-tested seniors at second, short, third, catcher, center field and the circle. Plus, right fielder Peanut Martinez is a fourth-year junior. All those upperclassmen were key pieces on the 2019 Women’s College World Series team, hence why there was so much hoopla when they all announced they were returning in 2021.

The talk immediately became championship or bust, and those expectations—while fair—seem to be weighing on the Wildcats as the postseason draws near. Aside from Dejah Mulipola, the seniors are hitting under their career averages.

They met after Sunday’s loss to ASU to try to get on the same page.

“I kind of feel like there’s a little bit of a press going on,” Candrea said. “You know, kids trying to be perfect in a game that’s not perfect. Kids that are maybe putting too much on themselves that they have to get it done in this moment and they’re just making the moments way too big and so we need to try to find a way that we can get back to the basics of playing this game. It is a game and it’s not life threatening and you have to have a little fun when you’re playing it. If you don’t have fun playing this game it can eat you up. And I think sometimes that’s what I see—is we’re trying to please too hard and too much. I think just a deep breath, relax and get back to playing the game and having a little more fun may help this group.”

Arizona softball is no stranger to high expectations, but Candrea noted that modern athletes can easily get caught up in the noise.

“I’ve said it all along that the toughest part about playing at this time is social media,” he said. “It’s having to have people examine your performance, and if you’re stupid enough to sit there and read it, it doesn’t do anything but put bad thoughts in your mind if you’re not doing well. And so it’s kind of a double-edged sword where back in the day I didn’t even post stats at one time. I just didn’t want them to know what they’re hitting because every at-bat’s a new day, it’s a new at-bat. And so we got to kind of get back to that, take some pressure off of them. I mean, that’s my job. And to get them back to having fun and if they can control what they can control, then I can accept the outcome no matter what it is.”