Arizona first baseman Jessie Harper had just hit into another postseason out, dropping her to 0-for-13. As she jogged back to the dugout, Mike Candrea moved over from the third-base coaches’ box, positioning himself in her path.
He gave her an atta-girl hand slap for smoking the ball to center field, never mind that it was caught.
“Sometimes you have to celebrate the small victories in this game, especially as a hitter,” Candrea said.
That small “victory” for Harper in the fifth inning would soon turn into a huge actual victory for her and the Wildcats.
Harper, confidence still high despite her mini-slump, delivered a walk-off bases-loaded single in the bottom of the seventh inning as Arizona beat Baylor 3-2 in the first game of a best-of-three Super Regional at Hillenbrand Stadium on Friday night.
On her birthday, no less.
The teams meet again Saturday at 6 p.m. With a victory, the Wildcats advance to their first Women’s College World Series since 2010. If Baylor wins, Game 3 will be held Sunday at 4 p.m.
Harper has been one of the top freshmen in the country this season, hitting 19 home runs and earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors. But she was 0-for-10 last weekend during NCAA regional play and was 0-for-3 Friday night before coming up with the bases loaded.
For hitters, softball is, as Candrea often says, a game of failure. That’s why he made it a point to congratulate Harper on her loud out in the fifth inning. He won the mind game.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, Mandie Perez led off with an infield single and went to second on a wild pitch that made it a full count to Katiyana Mauga. Baylor then intentionally delivered ball four to Mauga before Mo Mercado’s single loaded the bases for Harper.
“I was just trying to get the ball up in the air as far as it could possibly go, just so Mandie could possibly score,” Harper said.iddle.
Harper did just that with the next pitch.
She lined a shot past the glove on pitcher Gia Rodoni’s left hand and into center field.
“It was a challenge for her to struggle a little bit because she really hasn’t struggled a lot throughout the year,” Candrea said.
“Went back to work during the week and stayed positive and come out tonight and squared a couple up. When she hit the line drive to center field, I thought, ‘At least she’s on time, squaring the ball up again.’ It felt good to see her come through on her birthday.”
Arizona seemed in control of the game from the start.
It took the Cats only three batters to grab the lead.
Mauga hit a laser to the fence in right-center field for a one-out double off starter Kelsee Selman. Mercado, moved up one spot in the order from last weekend’s regional play, followed with a drive to center fielder Jessie Scroggins. Likely looking into the setting sun, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year failed to track the ball, which sailed past her glove for an RBI double.
Mauga gave Arizona a 2-0 lead with a mammoth home run to right centefield in the third. That was the 92nd homer of her career, two away from tying the NCAA record. Mauga had three hits and a walk Friday night.
😳 😳 😳 Katiyana Mauga 💣 💣 💣 pic.twitter.com/uZrWuURygF
“Kati was really a factor tonight,” Candrea said. “She was swinging at good ptiches. Just really calm.”
Said Mauga: “If i was swinging out of my shoes, that is definitely not something I would want or the team would want.”
Arizona ace Danielle O’Toole, meanwhile, was cruising. She had allowed four hits, none of which reach the outfield, in five scoreless innings. But she gave up a triple to lead off the sixth and then a home run to Ari Hawkins to tie the game.
Suddenly, there was drama.
But O’Toole rebounded to retire the next six batters, setting the stage for the top of the order to do its work in the seventh.
“I have never seen her where her emotions were controlling her,” Candrea said of O’Toole.
“She always seems to be in control. Even when she gave up the two runs, she came in and got with the team and went out and did her job. This time of the year, in the postseason, you have to be able to do that, because crap can happen sometimes, very quickly.”