Mike Candrea said it before the season, and he has said it many times since.
This year’s UA softball team will not hit more than 100 home runs, as it did in each of the last two seasons.
It just won’t happen.
Even as the Wildcats performed above expectations in terms of power through the nonconference portion of their schedule — Arizona has hit 39 homers, tied for the third-most in the Pac-12 — Candrea still didn’t bite.
This just isn’t a power-hitting team. This year, it’s about the pitching and timely hitting.
So far, unsurprisingly, the Wildcats’ lineup has been powered by one primary source — junior slugger Katiyana Mauga.
Mauga was clutch all weekend in a series win against Utah. Saturday afternoon, she belted a walk-off home run to beat the Utes.
“She balls out there, and she stays calm. She knows what she’s doing, and she’s going to hit the ball,” said Nancy Bowling, a pitcher and first baseman. “You know she’s going to hit it.”
The opponent knows, too — or it should. Candrea was surprised that the Utes even pitched to Mauga for that walk-off home run, considering it was the bottom of the seventh inning, game on the line, with nobody on base and with zero outs.
Mauga hasn’t quite received the Barry Bonds treatment, but maybe she should: This season, she has hit 12 homers and has driven in 37 runs, and she boasts a career-best .500 on-base percentage.
Mauga’s stats are impressive, but her patience has been priceless. Mauga has struck out just once in her last 36 at-bats and has just 12 strikeouts this season. She has walked 27 times, six off her career-high even though the Wildcats have 23 more regular-season games to play.
Don’t be surprised to see that total jump in the next 20-plus games.
For the Wildcats to succeed, Mauga could use a little protection. Hallie Wilson, Kellie Fox and Chelsea Goodacre helped with that the last two seasons, but they’re all gone.
Now, Candrea has just been trying to find some batters to produce behind Mauga, who bats third in the order.
Freshman Alyssa Palomino was supposed to be that pop, but she injured her knee before the season and won’t play all year.
The best candidate is probably infielder Mo Mercado, but she’s 0 for 18 in her last six games and is batting just .302 with runners on base this season. Two years ago, Mercado had 11 home runs and 53 RBIs in 60 games. She has 12 home runs and 56 RBIs in the 93 games since.
Candrea isn’t worried, saying “I know Mo is a good hitter; she’ll come back. It’s a game of averages, and she’ll have some hot streaks for us.”
The other batters behind Mauga haven’t done much better.
Lauren Young, Arizona’s lone senior, is hitting a career-worst .238 with a .347 on-base percentage and is hitless in 14 at-bats in the last six games; freshman Tamara Statman hasn’t had an RBI with runners on base in 14 games; outfielder Alexis Dotson is more of a contact hitter than run producer and has only three hits in her last 17 at-bats; and Bowling, primarily a pitcher in her first three years but now playing more first base, is 1 for 14 in her last eight games.
The Wildcats have shown flashes of what can happen when one, or some, of those hitters behind Mauga are playing well.
Arizona is 8-0 when Young drives in a run, 7-0 when Mercado has more than one RBI with runners on base and 4-0 when Bowling gets any hit with runners on base.
Those are the question marks.
The sure thing? That’s Mauga.
“We’re going to have to find something in the middle of the lineup that can give us some depth after Kati,” Candrea said before the season. “Kati is going to be a marked person.”