In the postseason, the end of a series usually goes something like this:
One team jumps and screams and celebrates its victory. They throw on their hats and T-shirts. They hug and high five. There are tears are of joy.
For the other team, it all comes crashing down. They drop to the ground, heads in their hands, tears in their eyes, blindsided by that truckload of (sad) emotion.
The UA softball team had eight seniors this year, and they were spread out all over the Hillenbrand Stadium field when it all ended on Sunday night with a loss to Baylor in the Super Regionals. Danielle O’Toole knelt in the pitcher’s circle, Michelle Floyd sat at home plate, and Mandie Perez, Eva Watson, Katiyana Mauga and Alexis Dotson all dropped onto Arizona’s outfield grass.
For them, it’s over. Even as Arizona valiantly attempted an upset of Auburn last season on the road in Super Regionals, and failed, this was always going to be the team to get the Wildcats back to the promised land. Arizona coach Mike Candrea, a veteran of 31 years, eight national titles and 22 Women’s College World Series appearances, even said as much before, during and even after the season had ended.
Arizona returned all but one player — bench or starter — from last year’s team, and added three ready-to-play freshmen in first baseman Jessie Harper, catcher Dejah Mulipola and second baseman Reyna Carranco.
Candrea found the pitching ace he’d missed since 2010 when Danielle O’Toole transferred from San Diego State, with an ace-in-waiting behind her in Taylor McQuillin, a sophomore.
The lineup was deep, without a true weak spot, and Arizona put up numbers to rival some of the very best teams in Arizona history.
The Wildcats, the Pac-12 Champions, were the tournament’s No. 2 overall seed for a reason, and the team’s 52 wins were its most since 2010.
That was also the last time Arizona made it to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.
That’s seven years of heartbreak, though this year’s early exit was particularly tough to swallow. None of Arizona’s five Super Regional eliminating losses in the last six years were within three runs.
“I was hoping to give them that experience of playing for the big one because that’s something you can’t teach, no matter how much you talk about it, or describe it, you don’t get it unless you get there,” Candrea said.
“That’s what hurts. More than anything with this team, if you look at their body of work they did, everything except these last two days, and that’s what’s disappointing to me.”
Here are four possible explanations why Arizona was unable to get past No. 15 seed Baylor in the Super Regional round this year.
Baylor was, simply,
a really good team
In a tough Pac-12 conference and challenging non-conference slate — which included a 4-0 victory over the Bears in February at Hillenbrand — the Wildcats faced a little bit of everything.
Arizona faced teams with talented hitters, with deep pitching rotations and with speed to burn. Most of them didn’t have all three.
Baylor has six players batting better than .300 and five of them have stolen at least 10 bases. In the circle, Baylor’s two pitchers — Kelsee Selman (24-8) and Gia Rodoni (18-3) — both have sub-2.00 ERAs.
Before the series, Candrea admitted that Baylor’s pitching duo might be the most talented Arizona faced this season. The duo wasn’t perfect, allowing a combined 29 hits in three games, but also stranded 24 Arizona runners on base, holding a potent Arizona offense to a combined 12 runs in three games.
In three regional round wins, Arizona outscored its opponents 25-0.
“They came in here in a tough environment and played well with their backs against the wall, kept competing. That’s the Baylor team I’m used to seeing,” Candrea said. “We saw them earlier in the year and they’re a good ball club. We just couldn’t get it done.”
Consistent pitching … became inconsistent
UA finished with its best team ERA (1.45) since 2006, and the most strikeouts (492) since 2008.
In recent years, Arizona’s offense was often productive while the pitching was not. The O’Toole-McQuillin combination changed that. O’Toole’s elite change-up baffled opponents all year, as she went 30-5 — the most individual wins at UA since 2010 — and was the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year.
Baylor solved the change-up.
In three games, Arizona’s pitchers allowed 29 hits and 18 runs, the worst three-game stretch of the season.
“That’s really unfortunate because that’s something we’ve counted on all year,” Candrea said. “I had tremendous amounts of confidence in both of those kids. Tooly’s off-speed pitch was a factor, but not as big of a factor as it normally is.”
Arizona was the best home run-hitting team in the nation this season, finishing with 94. Of course, 25 of those came off the bat of Mauga, and after of a solo home run on Friday, Baylor walked her the rest of the weekend.
That solo shot was Arizona’s only home run of the series, as Arizona’s other power hitters — Harper (19 home runs), Mulipola (12) and Mo Mercado (10) — went without a long ball.
The Wildcats were also missing redshirt Alyssa Palomino, who tore her ACL before the regionals and didn’t play again. Palomino hit 16 home runs this season.
“It was tough to see Alyssa go down when she went down,” Candrea said. “That changed our lineup a little bit.”
just didn’t pay off
Nobody will argue with Candrea’s credentials as a coach. Some of the coaching decisions against Baylor simply didn’t work out.
The three big ones:
1. Pitching O’Toole in relief on Saturday
McQuillin was acquitting herself well entering Saturday’s sixth inning, holding Baylor to six hits and two earned runs as Arizona led 4-2. After a leadoff double, the Wildcats pulled McQuillin for O’Toole, UA’s 30-game winner and ace. Hard to argue with that …but then the senior allowed three runs on four hits in less than an inning of work and Arizona lost.
2. Pitching McQuillin in relief on Sunday
The flipside of Saturday happened in the last game. O’Toole struggled to start the game, but bounced back to hold Baylor scoreless from innings 4-6. In the seventh, with Arizona leading 5-3, the Wildcats went to McQuillin. Baylor hit a three-run homer and took a 6-5 lead, the final score.
“Our pitching changes sure as hell didn’t work this weekend, that’s all I can say,” Candrea said.
3. Intentionally walking Friudenberg
By that seventh-inning stretch, the Wildcats went the Mauga route with Baylor’s Shelby Friudenberg, intentionally walking her in the fifth and seventh innings, though the latter came back to bite them.
Baylor led off with a double and then the Wildcats walked Friudenberg — who hit a home run earlier and hit .500 for the weekend — putting the game-tying run on first. Shelby McGlaun promptly launched a home run to center field.
“This kid, if you look at what she did to us, she owned us,” Candrea said of the intentional walk. “I think the tough part was not getting the leadoff hitter. Then I thought about maybe not (walking Friudenberg), but again we just felt like that’s what we were going to do. That’s the way it goes.”