These are good times at Hillenbrand Stadium and it is not only because beer is now sold and the renovated facility is the best in the Pac-12 and one of the grandest in the nation.
It has more to do than No. 11 Arizona improving to 8-0 in the Pac-12 tonight because of an 8-0 final against ASU on consecutive nights after five innings because of the mercy rule.
And there’s more to Mike Candrea’s smile than Arizona (26-7 overall) developing a formidable pitching tandem of Taylor McQuillin and Alyssa Denham, who have held 18th-ranked ASU’s once-potent bats to only four hits in two games.
Alyssa Denham with a complete-game shutout with a mercy-rule 8-0 win over ASU. Arizona wins the series and is 8-0 in the Pac-12. pic.twitter.com/eH9G1abAkN
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) March 31, 2019
Entering the weekend, ASU (25-10, 5-3 Pac-12) led the conference in slugging percentage (.696), on-base percentage (.461) and home runs per game (1.94).
A main reason for the happiness — Candrea said this team is one of his best in his 34 years at Arizona when it comes to chemistry.
“A lot of it is just their personalities,” Candrea said. “We have some quiet kids. We have some really outgoing kids. The one thing that I’ll tell you right now that is a huge part of that is we have some seniors that aren’t getting a lot of playing time, but they come to work every day and they bust their butts for us. They’re ready for their opportunity.
“They kind of set the tone. Someday I’ll be able to tell them how much I appreciate their leadership in many different ways. This team has a little bit of everything. … A lot of it is just enjoying one another.”
Tonight, we re-claimed the @NCAAsoftball lead (from Arizona State) in home runs per game (1.88)!
— Arizona Softball (@ArizonaSoftball) March 31, 2019
The seniors Candrea was talking about include three-year letterwinners Hillary Edior ( a catcher/utility player who has played in 10 of Arizona’s 33 games) and first baseman Joelle Krist (11 games).
“I would say that this year we don’t have any drama,” said sophomore Hannah Martinez. “We’re all sisters. We play as one. I think that’s our biggest thing right now.”
Candrea’s team is full of sophomores and juniors who are making the Wildcats believe that a run to the Women’s College World Series is once again possible. McQuillin, the senior ace, is one of the older players who keeps everything under control with her 1.45 ERA in 101 1/3 innings (129 strikeouts and 23 walks).
Final attendance number: 2⃣9⃣2⃣1⃣
That's the sixth largest crowd in Hillenbrand Stadium history and the largest since March 26, 2004! https://t.co/6xkrhXRSab
— Arizona Softball (@ArizonaSoftball) March 31, 2019
One of the youngest, is Martinez, affectionally nicknamed “Peanut.” In her 49th career at-bat at Arizona, she belted her first home run in college, a shot over the right field fence in the third to give Arizona a 6-0 lead.
Asked how many home runs she had at Pacifica High School in Garden Grove, Calif., Martinez (who is 5-foot-7) said, “I think maybe 10 or 11 but I’m not the biggest person. … That inside pitch (from ASU starter Abby Andersen), I knew it was coming and I just went with it.”
As she rounded third base, she said Candrea told her, “That’s what I’m looking for.”
Just to clarify, that does not translate to Candrea wanting her to become another Jessie Harper (one of the nation’s home run leaders with 17).
What he really wants is the bottom of his order, including Martinez, to keep on producing. The Nos. 6-9 hitters — Tamara Statman, Rylee Pierce, Martinez and Jenna Kean — went 4 for 9 with three RBIs. Each of them had a hit.
“I want to see (Martinez) square the ball up and swing away,” Candrea said. “The key today was the bottom of our order. I mean, 6, 7, 8 and 9 were on fire and they were on base. I’ve said it all along, when we have that many of them on base, we can score a lot of runs.”
Martinez lightly tossed the ball in which she hit the home run while talking to the media after the game.
“Maybe I’ll sign it and put it up in my room, I don’t know,” she said with a laugh.
Perhaps she can take suggestions from Denham about what she did with her game ball from last week’s no-hitter at Oregon State on her 21st birthday.
Denham was not overpowering but crafty with her pitches, getting ASU to ground out seven times, line out twice and fly out two other times. She had only one strikeout entering the fifth inning and wound up striking out the side around allowing a walk and a single.
Denham has allowed only two singles in her last 12 innings. In her last four outings, a total of 21 2/3 innings, she has given up only one extra-base hit.
“Our pitching staff is scary,” Denham said with a laugh.
It helps that a defense behind her did not commit an error. The Wildcats do not have an error in the two games against ASU this weekend. They have 20 games without an error this season.
“I obviously want the strikeout, but when they’re swinging at pitches I want them to swing at, and getting themselves out, and our defense is making the plays, then it makes it a lot easier on me,” said Denham, flashing a wide smile.
The Wildcats will try to continue their winning streak and go for a sweep of the Sun Devils tomorrow in front of another packed Hillenbrand Stadium.
Only a handful of standing-room tickets are available and they go on sale an hour before first pitch at 4 p.m. for the nationally-televised game on ESPN2.
Good times, indeed.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.