OKLAHOMA CITY — Arizona is opening the Women’s College World Series against Alabama, the same team that eliminated them in 2019. And while the Wildcats did exact some revenge when they beat the Crimson Tide twice in Tuscaloosa in 2020, they are out for more in Oklahoma City.
“Oh, I don’t think you ever forget a loss that a team gives you,” said Arizona shortstop Jessie Harper. “I definitely remember it. It’s etched in there. I won’t forget it.”
Two years have passed, but not that much has changed since 2019. At least from a personnel standpoint, anyway.
Arizona returns eight starters from that year’s team. Alabama, six. That includes ace Montana Fouts, who is expected to toe the rubber against the Wildcats on Thursday (4 p.m. PT, ESPN)
Fouts didn’t pitch against Arizona in 2020 but she beat them twice in 2019. She allowed one unearned run in a complete-game win at Hillenbrand Stadium in the regular season, then twirled a three-hit shutout against the Wildcats to end their season at the WCWS.
Fouts was only a freshman then. Now she’s a junior and one of the most accomplished pitchers in the country. The SEC Co-Pitcher of the Year enters the WCWS with a 25-3 record and a 1.49 ERA in 196.2 innings. She has a whopping 314 strikeouts to just 46 walks. Fouts has recorded 10 or more strikeouts in eight straight starts. Opponents are only hitting .185 against her with 11 home runs.
“The biggest key to her is velocity,” said Arizona head coach Mike Candrea. “She’s gonna throw the ball in the 70s, so for our hitters to get on time we have to really make sure that we’re starting a little earlier than we’re used to and making sure that we’re getting our front foot down in time, and then swinging at good pitches.”
Easier said than done.
“She tunnels the ball,” Candrea said. “Basically her release point and everything looks the same but one ball will go down and one ball go up. And so that’s going to be the challenge—having some good competitive at bats. If we’re seeing the ball well, then we’ll be fine.”
Arizona has a reason to be confident. Their offense has been red-hot in the NCAA Tournament, averaging nine runs per game over their last four games, all against SEC pitching.
Their lineup is much deeper than it was the last time they faced Fouts. They have added star freshmen Sharlize Palacios, Janelle Meoño and Carlie Scupin to a strong senior core of Harper, Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, Dejah Mulipola, Malia Martinez and Reyna Carranco.
“Alabama’s a good team but so are we, so I think it’s gonna be a good competitive game,” Harper said. “I’m so excited. We’re just gonna take what we know from them from the past and try and do it this year too, but at the end of the day it’s a whole new team just like we’re a whole new team.”
Arizona often lives by the long ball, but Candrea said the keys against Alabama will be putting the ball in play, making the defense work and getting the speedsters on base for the sluggers in the heart of the order.
Fouts had nine strikeouts against Arizona last time out.
“Usually in postseason, the short game becomes a big part of it,” Candrea said. “The pitches that you’re going to hit out of the ballpark are going to be mistakes. They are going to be a curveball that maybe is stays over the middle of the plate, but we’re going to continue to do what we do and that’s try to look for a good pitch that looks good to your eyes and attack it.”
It could only take one. A two-run double by Bailey Hemphill was the only run-scoring play in Alabama’s 2019 WCWS win over Arizona. It was also just one of only two hits the Crimson Tide had that night. Arizona had three singles.
“I mean, when you get to this point of the season, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing,” Candrea said. “It’s all about executing the game.”
While it’s a virtual certainty that Fouts will pitch for Alabama, Arizona isn’t so predictable. Hanah Bowen, Alyssa Denham and Mariah Lopez have all been effective this postseason and each present their own challenge. Denham throws down in the zone, Lopez works up and Bowen uses all four planes. All sit in the mid-to-upper 60s.
Whoever gets the nod will face an Alabama offense that hits for a high average, steals a lot of bases, but doesn’t hit many homers. Hemphill leads the Tide with 12.
Denham allowed two runs in three innings against Alabama in the 2019 World Series and two runs in four innings in Tuscaloosa in 2020. Lopez, who wasn’t on Arizona’s 2019 roster, allowed one run in seven innings, as well as three runs in three innings in a pair of outings against Alabama in 2020.
The Tide have never faced Bowen, who tossed seven innings of four-run ball against Arkansas last weekend and may very well get the nod Thursday.
“When we come to Oklahoma, we have a few pitchers that can pitch that haven’t been seen,” Harper said.
Not that Candrea is putting much stock in the past anyway.
“If we can get to their pitching then I think we’ve got a chance of maybe putting a crack in the dam,” he said. “But playing them when we played them two years ago has nothing to do with the team that you’re going to play this week.”