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Arizona Searching For More Than Homers

(Photo Courtesy of Arizona Athletics)

Arizona shortstop Jessie Harper dove to her left, snagging a sharply-hit grounder with the tip of her glove.

Her counterpart, Washington’s Sis Bates, sped up the first-base line. There was no chance to get her, and the play at second wasn’t much of an option either. Harper resigned the infield single, Washington’s fourth in its 7-4 victory Saturday at Rita Hillenbrand Stadium in Tucson. However, the play was far from over.

Harper’s hesitation in getting to her feet allowed Washington freshman Megan Vandergrift to race around third and sneak past the throw home, scoring the eventual game-winning fifth run in the fourth inning. As Arizona catcher Dejah Mulipola tried to tag Vandergrift, the Washington runners on first and second each advanced a base. With a single to center, Sami Reynolds plated them just two batters later.

“The one thing about this game is that it happens so quickly, it’s got to be instinctive,” Arizona coach Mike Candrea said. “They’re an aggressive team, and we just didn’t respond.”

The No. 3 Wildcats (40-11, 17-4) are seeking their first Women’s College World Series appearance since 2010. They have lost in the Super Regionals seven times during that eight-season drought, including twice at home.

After winning 21 in a row Arizona has dropped four of its last six, including a three-game sweep at the hands of No. 7 Washington this weekend. That dropped its record to 5-8 against teams in the top 16 of the NCAA’s RPI rankings with its last win all the way back on March 9.

That’s important because the NCAA relies heavily on the RPI rankings to seed its tournament field. The top eight earn home super regionals where they will likely face a top-16 opponent with a WCWS ticket on the line.

Arizona has another chance to prove it can compete with the nation’s best this weekend, traveling to No. 2 UCLA for a three-game series at No. 2 UCLA that will ostensibly decide the Pac-12 title.

“We need to kind of find ourselves again,” Candrea said. “Any team is always a work in progress. When you play this many games, it’s a roller coaster. You’re going to have some ups and downs. A lot of times you find the character of the team when you’re down more so than when you’re winning.

“This will be a challenge for this group to look and see what kind of team they want to be from here on out and how long they want to play. This is a good team. For them to be a great team, they have to learn from this experience and change some things.”

Any observer can tell where the Wildcats excel.

They hit home runs, 92 to be exact, more than any team in the country other than No. 1 Oklahoma. They have four players with 12 or more, and their .594 team slugging percentage ranks fifth in the nation.

Elsewhere, Arizona has struggled.

Pitchers Taylor McQuillin and Alyssa Denham have been strong overall, each carrying a sub-2.00 ERA while eating up 254.2 of the team’s 323.2 innings. However, in those top-16 RPI matchups they have been exposed, going 4-8 with a 3.58 ERA.

The defense has also been solid, registering the nation’s 12th-best fielding percentage, .975, with only 34 errors. But while it doesn’t make too many mistakes, it stops short of the exceptional.

Washington accumulated seven infield hits in three games, and Arizona has turned just 16 double plays all season. Without perhaps its best fielder, second baseman Reyna Carranco, who broke her left thumb and hand in the Washington series, the Wildcats haven't quite been the same, and Candrea didn’t seem optimistic the junior will return any time soon.

“I hope we get her back, but right now she’s got a broken thumb and a broken hand,” Candrea said. “So, time will tell.”

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