No. 10 Arizona run-ruled Utah in the first two games of the weekend series, but the third showed their pitchers still have some kinks to work out.
Mariah Lopez allowed two more homers and Alyssa Denham was tagged for a two-run double in relief as the Wildcats staved off the last-place Utes 6-4 for their 27th straight win at Hillenbrand Stadium.
“We did what we had to do,” Arizona head coach Mike Candrea said. “Mariah is still struggling a little bit, but I saw some glimpses of her understanding what she needs to do to move forward. I think that’s the name of the game right now. These doubleheaders in the middle of the season are kind of challenging, but I think overall this team did a good job today.”
Lopez has been burned by the long ball all season, but the beleaguered ace was given the nod in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader—a non-conference game—so she could work through her struggles in a low-stress environment.
It started in the worst way imaginable. Alyssa Barrera launched the first pitch Lopez threw—a riseball up and out over the plate—over the batter’s eye in center. Lopez served up another solo homer in the fourth when Destiny Quiles pulled a no-doubter to left.
It was the 15th homer Lopez has allowed this season and fifth she’s given up in her last two starts. It also marked the fifth time this season she has surrendered two or more homers in an outing.
That’s after she only allowed four homers in 71 innings in 2020.
“When that type of thing happens, we have a whole lot of game left so you just kind of have to look at it from that perspective,” Lopez said of the first solo homer. “Obviously we’ve been hitting relatively well, so knowing that my teammates are gonna have my back...you take your moment, you have your two seconds of, ‘okay, why did that happen?’ But then you move on and then you get ready for the next batter.”
To her credit, she did that pretty well. Aside from the homers, Lopez only allowed one hit—a single—and a walk in five innings of work. She felt she made progress from her last outing at ASU where she allowed three two-run homers in an 8-1 loss.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that I have been struggling, but I just have been really getting to work within my bullpen sessions with Coach T (Taryne Mowatt) and we’ve been really getting after it,” Lopez said. “Just taking anything I can and working from that because I’m not giving up. We have a whole lot of season left and I’m not ending my senior year this way.”
When asked why Lopez has been prone to the long ball, Candrea said, “why don’t you talk to her?” then added “she’s working on some things, trying to get more legs.”
The way Lopez sees it, the home runs are a series of individual mistakes rather than a sign of an underlying issue with her pitch execution.
“Obviously the first one was the first pitch of the game, so I really was not expecting that one, but every one is different,” she said. “I don’t feel like they’re really all connected in any way. It just happens the way that it does.”
Lopez was chatting with the team trainer after the game but said she’s feeling fine.
“Physically, obviously you can have issues. You know, aches and pains, but I feel relatively good and it’s just the mental side that we kind of have to work through,” she said.
Sharlize Palacios picked up her pitcher after the first solo homer by lining a grand slam to center to give Lopez a 4-1 cushion. Palacios has been on a tear this homestand, with five hits, four homers and 10 RBI.
She’s now tied with fellow catcher Dejah Mulipola for the team lead in homers while her 41 RBIs are the second-most on the team, only three behind Mulipola. Pitchers are approaching Palacios differently these days, but the results have been the same.
“I kind of got away with them trying to pitch all hard speeds and just trying to get the ball past me, where now I see them using a lot more off-speeds,” she said. “But I also have been working on that. So now it’s just me picking a pitch and staying relaxed up at the plate. I feel like they’re being a little more particular with which pitches they’re giving me, but now I have to also be particular which ones I’ll swing at.”
This is the first Pac-12 series the Wildcats have been completely healthy for, and it’s showing on the line score. They have tallied 34 runs, 39 hits and 11 homers in three wins over the Utes. They will go for the four-game sweep on Sunday at noon.
“Well, it’s really exciting for me,” Candrea said. “If you look at our lineup, I’d hate to be an opponent to have to face it if we got our heads screwed on and we’re doing our job. We should be able to put pressure on people in any inning and that’s what I love about it. I’ve always said to be a really good team at this level you have to be strong one through nine. You can’t have any breaks in your lineup, and when we have everyone healthy right now, I just kind of feel like our lineup is moving around pretty quickly.”