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Did Arizona softball turn a corner against Oregon?

What we learned from the Wildcats’ split with the Ducks

COLLEGE SOFTBALL: MAR 07 SIUE at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Before Arizona traveled to Oregon, our editor thought the Wildcats needed to go .500 in their final two series if they wanted to host a super regional this season. If that is, indeed, the case, they are still on track to do it after winning the back half of the four-game series in Eugene over the weekend.

What did we learn?

The pitchers have to be almost perfect, and that’s not always enough

Through most of the weekend, the Arizona offense gave the pitchers no room for error. Literally.

Hanah Bowen had a perfect game going into the seventh inning of Friday night’s opener. Oregon won 2-1 on a walk-off home run.

The Wildcats outscored the Ducks 7-6 on the weekend, but four of those runs came in the second game of Saturday’s double header. In the three games that constituted the Pac-12 series, Arizona averaged one run per game.

The Wildcats’ two primary pitchers are losing far too many games by one- and two-run margins. Eighteen of their games have been decided by two or fewer runs. Of those eighteen, 10 have been losses.

In their two most recent Pac-12 series losses, the margin was that slim in two of the losses. ASU took the series in April by three games to one, winning all three of the conference match-ups. One was a laugher, but the other two were tight games that could have flipped the script of the season.

After two series wins against conference cellar-dwellers, it was back to facing ranked teams. Arizona split the series with Oregon two games to two, but the Ducks won the Pac-12 portion of the series by taking the first two games. The winning margins were 1-0 and 2-1.

With even a little bit of run support, this could be a different season for the team.

The pitching staff gets smaller and that No. 1 position is open to question

With the offense struggling to provide run support, head coach Mike Candrea seemed to have come to the conclusion that it was too much to risk putting Mariah Lopez in the circle.

Despite his previous statements that Bowen tended to run into trouble when she had to pitch back-to-back, Candrea went with his right-handed junior on Friday and again in the late game on Saturday.

Overall, though, he is showing his faith in Denham by using her most often in conference games. While Lopez didn’t even appear in relief over the weekend, Denham was right back in the circle after a hard-luck story in Saturday’s early game. In the non-conference contest Saturday afternoon, she came in when Bowen ran into some trouble.

Bowen and Denham combined to give up seven hits in a 4-3 victory for the Wildcats. Less than 24 hours later, the senior was on the rubber again to help Arizona split the weekend series by taking the final game 2-0.

Candrea said that they needed to win “no ifs, ands or buts,” and his decisions about who would get the ball reflected that.

In general, Candrea is putting Bowen in the circle for one conference game and the non-conference game each weekend. That seems to point to the reasoning behind his comments two weeks ago that not all coaches are throwing their so-called ace on Friday night.

Denham has now settled into pitching two of each weekend's conference games and relieving when she’s needed.

The reasoning is pretty clear when breaking down the stats. Denham has only given up five home runs in 119.67 innings this season. Bowen has given up 10 in 72 innings. That’s an average of 0.14 round-tripper per inning for Bowen against only 0.04 per inning for Denham.

Meanwhile, Lopez, the pitcher everyone thought would battle with Denham for the No. 1 spot in the rotation, has had exactly one meaningful win this season. That was two months ago in Tallahassee when she led the Wildcats to one of their four wins over ranked teams this season. Overall, she is 6-2 this year with four additional appearances where she didn’t figure in the decision.

Lopez is 1-2 in Pac-12 play because she has given up 0.26 home runs per inning this season. She has given up at least one home run in eight of her 13 appearances. In two of those games—both against league foes—she surrendered three. Even a struggling Utah team took her out of the park twice in five innings.

In 57.1 innings over 13 appearances this season, Lopez has averaged 20 or more pitches an inning in four different games. Denham has three such games in 119.2 innings over 25 appearances. Bowen has one in 72 innings over 14 appearances.

At this point, Candrea simply cannot afford to use the pitcher who arrived with such fanfare just last season.

Harper had a weekend

Jessie Harper has been Arizona’s home run queen for the last several years. This season started with a lot of fanfare around her race for the NCAA home run record.

Perhaps that was bad luck. After all, the last time such a race happened in Tucson, Katiyana Mauga fell just shy as Baylor repeatedly intentionally walked her on their way to upsetting the Wildcats in the Super Regionals.

As it stands, Harper has 13 home runs in 136 at-bats this season. That averages out to one homer per 9.6 at-bats, which is the second-lowest rate she has had in her five years at Arizona.

In last year’s pandemic-shortened season, Harper had 10 long balls in 76 at-bats, averaging out to one every 7.6 at-bats. That was a slight drop from the impressive 7.03 at-bats between every homer in 2019. That year, she was good for 29 in 204 at-bats.

This year, Harper has a ratio of HR-per-AB that’s more similar to her first two seasons in Tucson. She had 18 home runs in 194 at-bats (10.78 HR/AB) as a sophomore and 23 in 212 AB (9.22 HR/AB) as a freshman.

Harper also has the lowest batting average of her career, but it’s not by a lot. She is currently hitting .331, a smidge below the previous low of .333 she set her junior season. She has hit between .330 and .345 in four of her five years at Arizona.

It does seem like a huge drop from last year, though. When her first senior season was called off, Harper was hitting a blistering .395 while also having one of her best seasons as a home-run hitter.

Whether it’s making the moment too big, the special pressures of the pandemic season, or some other factor, Harper hasn’t been able to recapture that production this year and the Wildcats have missed it.

That made her weekend in Oregon all the more promising for the team. Harper went 5-for-12 in the four-game series. Three of those five went for extra bases with a double, a triple and a home run. On top of that, Oregon pitchers walked her twice.

That she had the weekend against one of the top teams in the conference is something for the Wildcats’ fans to hold onto, as well. Against ASU, she went 3-for-11 with just one extra-base hit over the four-game series. In the two-game series against Washington, she went 0-for-7 and struck out five times.

Both Harper and the pitching staff seemed to rekindle some of their magic as the series against Oregon progressed. If they can maintain that against UCLA, playing Super Regionals in Tucson may not be such a long shot.