Jessie Harper will need a power surge in the postseason to make home run history.
So far, so good.
The senior shortstop launched her 90th career homer as No. 11 Arizona beat 7-0 UMBC on Friday in their first game of the Tucson Regional.
Harper is now tied with Stacey Nuveman for third on the all-time home run list. She needs two more long balls to tie Katiyana Mauga’s Arizona record and five to match Lauren Chamberlain’s NCAA record.
Jessie Harper just hit her 90th career homer, tying Stacey Nuveman for third-most in NCAA history.— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) May 22, 2021
The two-run shot gives Arizona a 2-0 lead on UMBC in the 3rd. pic.twitter.com/QxPdM34qKu
“I remember saying that 90 is a cool number...so I hit 90, had a little bit of an extra smile,” Harper said. “I’m up there with some really cool people. But I’m happy. I’m proud of myself.”
Harper’s two-run shot, a no-doubter into the left field bleachers, broke a scoreless tie in the third and awoke an Arizona offense that benefitted from some shoddy UMBC defense.
Unaccustomed to Hillenbrand Stadium’s bouncy infield dirt, the Retrievers committed five errors including a pair of throwing errors in the fourth inning that allowed Peanut Martinez to score on an infield single from Janelle Meoño.
That was just the start.
An inning later, a routine fly ball clanked out of the UMBC center fielder’s glove and Sharlize Palacios punished the very next pitch to right field for a two-run homer to break open a 5-0 lead.
Palacios drove in two more runs in the sixth to finish with three hits and four RBI on the night. With two outs in the frame, the UMBC third baseman couldn’t corral a chopper, allowing Reyna Carranco and Harper to score.
That was after Palacios fouled out in the first inning as UMBC ace Courtney Coppersmith escaped a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam.
“We were swinging a little bit too big, seeing the ball a little bit too out in front,” said Harper, who walked in the first inning. “It might have just been a little bit of jitters.”
In a good way. 1,935 fans flocked to Hillenbrand Stadium, which was operating at full capacity for the first time this season.
Rita was rocking until Maddie Daigneau and Julia Keffler singled and walked to lead off the game. A wild pitch pushed them into scoring position with one out but Hanah Bowen got two groundouts to prevent any damage.
A walk and hit by pitch put another pair of Retrievers on the base paths in the second inning but two more groundouts prevented any damage. Bowen cruised from there, retiring 16 straight batters until a runner reached with two outs in the seventh when Harper bounced a throw to first.
Bowen only needed 81 pitchers to go the distance. The junior only tallied four strikeouts, instead generating a lot of weak contact.
Arizona’s defense made highlight plays behind her. In the fifth, third baseman Malia Martinez dove to catch a bunt on the fly and Dejah Mulipola battled the netting to snare a popup behind home plate.
“I had butterflies, I had nerves but after that home run Jessie hit, I think the momentum started to go, and we started to settle in,” Bowen said. “The strike zone was a little tight in the first couple of innings, but it is what it is. I just had to get them to swing and miss and get the ground balls and pop ups.”
UMBC coach Chris Kuhlmeyer said Bowen was one of the hardest-throwing pitchers the Retrievers have faced all season. She regularly sits in the upper 60s. He was impressed by the movement and command of her pitches too. What really stood out, though, was her competitive fire.
“When she gave up that hit against Maddie in the first inning, I instantly saw she was like, ‘I don’t think so. You’re not gonna getting another hit tonight,’’’ Kuhlmeyer said. “If you don’t attack her early in the count, especially with the pitches that she has, it’s just hard to be able to keep extending the at-bat off that kid before she finally make some mistakes. She just doesn’t make too many of those.”
Arizona will face Ole Miss in the winner’s bracket on Saturday at 2 p.m. PT, a rematch of the 2019 Super Regionals. The Rebels beat Villanova 5-1 on Friday.
Candrea hinted that Alyssa Denham will start for the Wildcats. She threw seven innings of one-run ball against Ole Miss in 2019, punching Arizona’s ticket to the Women’s College World Series.
“The first game at Regionals is sometimes the toughest, just getting your feet wet and I always say that there’s never a bad win,” Candrea said. “Whatever you got to do to get that first victory is pretty important, and now we move on to tomorrow and the game tomorrow becomes important. It puts you in the driver’s seat.”