Arizona pitcher Taylor McQuillin struck out the final batter of the game, jumped out of the circle, beamed a wide smile and ran into her teammates’ arms.
That celebration capped 5 2/3 innings of hitless relief for Taylor on Sunday, a total-command performance that wrapped up her weekend of dominance at an NCAA regional. That’s the story — that’s the best sign of hope — for the Wildcats, who now have to trek into the belly of the beast — at third-seeded UCLA for a best-of-three Super Regional next week.
No way Arizona survives without an ace.
Can we truly call McQuillin that now?
“I think she has grown a lot mentally, and sometimes you have to go through the trials and tribulations of this game and it makes you stronger,” Arizona coach Mike Candrea said after his team beat Mississippi State 4-3 at Hillenbrand Stadium on Sunday.
“I think she is starting to understand what she needs to do to stay in control of herself in tough situations, and today she was the pitcher I thought she would be when we recruited her.”
The last out.
McQuillin, a junior, spent her first two seasons in the shadow of Danielle O’Toole, and when called upon to pitch the biggest inning of her life last season, she gave up a double, an intentional walk and a three-run home as Baylor stunned the Cats 6-5 to win a Super Regional at Hillenbrand.
Back in the postseason, McQuillin fired shutouts against St. Francis (Pa.) and North Dakota State before her relief appearance Sunday. Candrea started Alyssa Denham, who has had some big moments for the Wildcats this season, but knew he would have quick hook. He needed it after Denham left too many pitches up in the zone and gave up three solo home runs and then a walk.
McQuillin entered with the game tied at 3 in the bottom of the second and was perfect until a leadoff walk in the seventh. Arizona outfielder Aleah Craighton drove in the winning run with a single in the fifth inning.
“Coming in in relief is a little bit of a different feeling. It’s a different mindset you’ve got to have,” McQuillin said. “My team had worked hard to get three runs, so I had to make sure I could shut the other team down.”
McQuillin pitched 19 2/3 innings of scoreless ball at the regional, allowing six hits and six walks, striking out 22.
“In my eyes, she’s always had the physical skills, but I think sometimes the game got too quick on her,” Candrea said. “She started moving ahead too quickly. Now, I think she is where her feet are all the time, and she has gained confidence in some tough situations.”
All of this has been a process. Candrea said he thinks the switch flipped for McQuillin in late April at Arizona State.
McQuillin lost the opener, 2-1, on a walk-off double in the seventh. Arizona won the middle game of the series, 4-1, with Denham in the circle. In the finale, McQuillin gave up a game-tying home run to lead off the bottom of the seventh, but then worked around a no-outs double. The Wildcats scored two in the eighth, and McQuillin shut down the Devils in the bottom of the inning for a 4-2 win.
Since then …
55 innings, 27 hits, 13 walks, 61 strikeouts and two earned runs for a 0.25 ERA.
Now, none of those opponents since the ASU series has been as good as UCLA, but you can’t say that McQuillin’s confidence isn’t sky high.
“Part of it is knowing that she is the lead dog,” Candrea said. “She’s had all the big games, so that has helped her develop. Now, she is embracing who she is and what she needs to do to play her best softball.”
And first-year pitching coach Taryne Mowatt gets a big assist, too.
The former Arizona All-American can certainly relate. Like McQuillin, she was a backup option for two seasons, to Alicia Hollowell, before becoming the No. 1 as a junior. It took Mowatt all of three seasons to become the pitcher that became the 2007 World Series hero and multiple ESPY-award winner.
“Taryne is invaluable explaining to pitchers about the process and what she had to go through,” Candrea said.
And there’s the practical matter of in-game strategy and adjustments.
“Here is one thing about Taryne that most people don’t know. She has a great memory,” Candrea said. “And when you’re calling pitches, I think that’s one of the greatest things you can have.
A lot of the stuff she remembers is non-relevant,” Candrea added with a smile, “but when it comes to the game … she remembers hitters, she remembers what happened. I think it’s amazing. I think her and Taylor really work well together.
“I think Taylor started gaining confidence in her ability to call the game. We have always given Taylor the option to shake off pitches, and as the year went on she was shaking off fewer and fewer. Kudos to Taryne; I think she has done a wonderful job.”
Now comes the Super Regional hurdle. Arizona hasn’t been to the World Series since 2010. And UCLA swept a three-game series in Tucson this season, with McQuillin taking two of the losses, allowing an ugly 12 earned runs in nine innings.
But that was before the Arizona State series that might have turned everything around for McQuillin.
Her day at the ballpark ended Sunday as teammates dumped ice water on her while doing an ESPN interview.
“It’s a good feeling,” McQuillin said. “It means the team has my back.”
And McQuillin make have the shoulders to carry the team to Oklahoma City.