After Arizona’s final game of the regular season, head coach Mike Candrea was asked if he thought that Mariah Lopez might be a “secret weapon” in the postseason for the Wildcats. Just a few weeks ago, it would have seemed like a silly question.
When she came to Arizona after the 2019 season, Lopez and the Wildcats hoped that she would lead them back to another Women’s College World Series. Maybe she would even be a member of the ninth title-winning team for Arizona. Then, the wheels came off.
First, it was the pandemic that canceled her first senior season. But, like all of the seven “super seniors” on the Arizona roster, she had another chance.
That didn’t go as planned, either. Lopez came out on top of her game on the Wildcats’ opening road series. She pitched a shutout to give Arizona its only win against Florida State in a 1-0 pitchers’ duel.
After that, Lopez struggled to keep the ball in the yard.
“It’s no secret that I’ve been struggling,” she said after she pitched the Wildcats to a win against Utah in April.
For the season, Lopez has a 2.61 ERA. That’s a far cry from the 1.38 ERA she had in the pandemic-shortened season last year. It’s not even close to the 1.61 career ERA she had in her three years at Oklahoma. Was she going to be able to help an Arizona team that really needed pitching if they hoped to reach the Women’s College World Series two seasons in a row?
She started to show signs that she could be that pitcher again in the season finale against UCLA. Lopez started a game that Candrea planned to use all of his pitchers in. Her opening two innings were solid. Two hits and a walk. No runs. Three strikeouts.
It could have been a big win for Arizona. The night before, they had beaten the Bruins in a non-conference matchup. A weekend split with the team sporting the No. 1 RPI might have even given the Wildcats home-field advantage throughout the regionals and super regionals.
Lopez was lifted with Arizona leading 1-0 after the second inning. In the fourth, it all fell apart. Between Alyssa Denham and Devyn Netz, the Wildcats’ pitchers surrendered seven runs while recording just one out.
Lopez did what her teammates had done for her most of the year. She stepped back into the circle and buckled down. The Bruins didn’t score again. She allowed two hits and two walks while striking out five in 4.2 innings. It wasn’t a win for the team, but it might have been a sign of something more important in the long term.
Was Lopez back?
“As you listen to people talk, they don’t mention her name,” Candrea said before the Tucson Regional. “Mariah is a very good pitcher and I think she just needed to get her mind right and get some confidence and I thought if there was a positive out of this weekend (against UCLA), that was one...for her to throw as well as she did. I’m really happy with that.”
She carried that confidence over into the Tucson Regional, showing every indication that she was back. Lopez picked up two wins in relief as Arizona’s starters struggled mightily. In her last three appearances—including two in the postseason—she has a 0.00 ERA.
Lopez had only accomplished that twice all season. The first time, it gave hope for the season. She had back-to-back games with no earned runs in 9.1 innings against South Florida and Florida State as the Wildcats took on a 10-day road trip.
The second time, it was in games where Arizona was obviously not at risk of losing. Games against New Mexico State and Grand Canyon were meant to give Lopez confidence without risking marks in the loss column. She pitched just six innings in those two outings, most of them against NMSU.
In her last three outings, Lopez has walked two and struck out nine in 12 innings. She has given up 11 hits but has kept those runners from crossing home plate.
Most importantly, she has only given up one home run in the month of May. After surrendering 0.26 homers per inning in the first 2.5 months of the season, she has dropped that to 0.09 per inning in the final month while facing UCLA and Ole Miss twice each.
If the Wildcats hope to get back to Oklahoma City, they need all of their pitchers at their peaks. Denham and Hanah Bowen have carried the mantel most of the season and might be showing signs of that strain now. Netz is still very young.
It is the perfect time for Lopez to step back into the circle and remind everyone why Arizona fans were so excited when she chose the Wildcats. If she can do that, it will be the ideal ending to the winding story of her college career.