Like so many times in recent years, the Arizona Wildcats were once again knocking on the door of the Women’s College World Series.
This time it was the Baylor Bears that wouldn’t let them in.
But this University of Arizona softball team that was just beaten by Baylor in the Tucson Super Regionals didn’t look much like the one that had dominated so many opponents this season, winning 48 regular-season games and finishing as the No. 5 team in the country.
This team, the No. 2 overall seed in the post-season, struggled with the No. 15-seeded Bears through three games to bring one of their most promising seasons to an early end.
The Wildcats lost just two games at home all season and had the distinct advantage of being able to host both the regional and the super regional. Baylor doubled the number of home losses in one weekend.
This was Memorial Day weekend. For Arizona, it wasn’t much of a holiday.
There will be a lot of reflection on what went wrong and a lot of second-guessing about what they should have done differently. But perhaps the biggest mystery is why this team showed up, and the one that outscored their opponents 25-0 in the regional didn’t.
Arizona (52-9) finished the season ranked second in the nation in slugging percentage, third in scoring, and leads all D-I programs in home runs. But this weekend, the Cats left 30 runners stranded on base through the three-game series.
It took a single in the seventh inning by a freshman, Jessie Harper, to win the one game they took from Baylor, a 3-2 victory in the opener.
Baylor won the second game on Saturday, 6-4, and then came from behind in yesterday’s finale to score three runs in the top of the seventh to pull out the 6-5 upset and punch their ticket to Oklahoma City.
The Wildcats boast one of the best pitching tandems in the country in Danielle O’Toole (1.08 ERA) and Taylor McQuillin (1.72 ERA). But this weekend the duo gave up 29 hits and 14 runs. UofA collected the same number of hits, but couldn’t turn them into runs as efficiently as the Bears.
Yesterday’s final game was anything but dull, going from one momentum swing to the next.
Baylor struck first by scoring off a couple of hits in the first inning and Arizona answered when Katiyana Mauga was walked intentionally and later scored on a wild pitch to tie it at 1-1. A home run in the third with a runner on gave the Bears the lead again, but the Wildcats tied it up again in the fifth when they loaded the bases and Mo Mercado and Harper singled in two more runs to make it 3-3.
In the bottom of the sixth, it appeared Arizona might be ready to begin packing for that trip to Oklahoma City. The Cats plated a couple of more runs to give them a 5-3 lead going into the top of the seventh, putting them just three outs away from the win.
But a three-run homer by a freshman, Shelby McGlaun, in the top of the seventh gave the lead back to the Bears. The loss was attributed to McQuillin, who started the inning in relief of O’Toole.
Arizona was able to get runners on first and second in the bottom half of the inning, but couldn’t bring them home.
It’s been seven years since the Wildcats have made it to the WCWS. The last five they were stopped short at the super regionals.
But for Mauga, there’s got to be a deeper side to her frustration. After the senior hit a home run in Friday’s opener, Baylor coach, Glenn Moore, decided he didn’t want to get beat by the nation’s leader in home runs, so his pitchers issued eight straight intentional walks in the final two games.
They were forced to pitch to her in the sixth inning yesterday since she came up with the bases loaded. But her fly-out to center ended the inning.
Mauga had collected 92 home runs, which broke the school record, but she was still three round trips shy of the NCAA all-time record.
With eight additional opportunities at the plate in this series, and maybe a chance to move on to the WCWS if she had been allowed to hit, there would have been a reasonably good chance she could have moved to the top of the list.
But her pain is lost in the collective disappointment of yet another failure to get a proud program back to Oklahoma City.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)