The postseason is here and Arizona softball might have a secret weapon in Mariah Lopez.
“As you listen to people talk, they don’t mention her name right now, but Mariah is a very good pitcher,” head coach Mike Candrea said. “I think she just needed to get her mind right and get some confidence.”
Lopez did that Saturday, tossing 4.2 scoreless innings in the regular-season finale against No. 2 UCLA, blanking one of the best lineups in the country. It was her first scoreless appearance since April 14 vs. GCU and her first all season against a Pac-12 opponent. She only allowed two hits.
“It definitely is a confidence booster,” Lopez agreed. “I think it was a good outing to get myself back into the rhythm, especially for postseason coming up. ... I finally have gotten my movement back and my body placement back into motion.”
It might sound crazy to suggest that Lopez, who helped Oklahoma win a national championship in 2017, could fly under anyone’s radar. The Saugus, California native entered the year with a career 1.57 ERA and a 62-4 record, the highest winning percentage in college softball history.
But her super senior season hasn’t unfolded as expected. She has posted the highest ERA of her career (2.60) while surrendering 16 homers, four times as many as she did in the abbreviated 2020 season despite logging six fewer innings.
Lopez’s velocity dropped periodically, a dangerous development for a pitcher who likes to work up in the zone. She wasn’t even in the rotation when Arizona faced Oregon a couple weeks ago.
Lopez doesn’t deny that she has been struggling, but she isn’t willing to sit back and let it define her last go-around. She has been working hard with pitching coach Taryne Mowatt to get back on track.
“I know when you’re kind of in, I don’t want to use the word slump, but not in a great place, you kind of just tend to want to throw your hands up, but this is my senior year,” Lopez said. “I’m not giving up until the last pitch, the last out, the last game, whatever it may be.”
The UCLA series could be the first sign that Lopez is about to experience a late-season surge. Candrea called her a bright spot and said she will be one of the four pitchers Arizona will use in the Tucson Regional this weekend.
“She got ahead (in counts) and she was throwing pitches in good places,” he said. “And she didn’t throw a ton of riseballs but her riseball is very effective. I think the big thing with her is pounding the zone and getting ahead, throwing good pitches and staying out of the middle of the plate, obviously. She did a really good job of that.”
Whether she starts or comes in relief, Lopez is cherishing every opportunity she gets. Even when she doesn’t pitch, she has stayed upbeat.
“It’s my senior year and I don’t want to look back and wish that I did things differently,” she said. “I really have just been trying to enjoy the moment regardless of what the situation is because at the end of it, coach always talks about it, we’re not going to be talking about how many runs were scored or how many home runs were hit or whatever it was. We’re gonna be talking about the positive and happy memories that we have and I want to continue to make those for as long as I can while I’m still here.”
Lopez could be a big reason Arizona is able to prolong its season with a run to the Women’s College World Series. Her postseason experience is indispensable. She has pitched on this stage every year of her career except 2020 when the WCWS was cancelled by the coronavirus pandemic.
Some players find a different gear when the stakes get high. Lopez believes she’s one of them. Her track record bears that out. In March, she threw a three-hit shutout in a road win at No. 16 Florida State. As a freshman at Oklahoma, she was the winning pitcher in the Sooners’ title-clinching victory over Florida.
“It’s just a great experience and a great vibe,” Lopez said. “Every pitch, every at-bat, every inning is going to change the future.”
But not the past. Lopez said she has no regrets about beginning her career at Oklahoma or her decision to transfer away after the 2019 season. She’s found joy in Arizona and is glad the pandemic gave her an extra year to don the Wildcat uniform.
“It was just finding myself again,” she said. “I’ve had some adversity and just trying to find the little things within. Obviously, it was a little bit different going into your senior year and being a transfer, but I’m friends with a lot of the girls on the team and closer to home. And also having Coach Candrea and our coaching staff instilling the culture and the tradition here, it really just felt like home. So, therefore, it brings me happiness.”