Izzy Pacho’s home run to lead off the top of the eighth inning and another efficient performance by Arizona pitcher Hanah Bowen was the difference for the Wildcats in the 3-2 win Friday over Mississippi State in the opening game of the Starkville Super Regional.
Arizona (37-20) is one win away from reaching the Women’s College World Series. If the Wildcats beat Mississippi State (37-26) at 1 p.m. on Saturday, it will advance to Oklahoma City. If the Bulldogs prevail, a deciding game will be played Sunday.
Bowen (13-10) pitched her fourth consecutive complete game dating to the May 14 regular-season finale against Stanford. She scattered seven hits and allowed a career-high six walks while striking out five.
“I feel connected to when (Bowen’s) locked in and getting hitters out,” said Arizona coach Caitlin Lowe, who is now 4-0 in the postseason as a head coach, taking over for the legendary Mike Candrea. “And even when she doesn’t have her best stuff, but she knows she can beat people, I trust her with the ball every single time in that moment.”
— Arizona Softball (@ArizonaSoftball) May 27, 2022
After walking the leadoff batter in the eighth, Bowen put an exclamation point to her performance. She got the next three batters out, one by strike out.
“I was telling myself just one pitch at a time, one pitch at a time and breathe. That’s what I did,” said Bowen, who is 3-0 with a 1.59 ERA in 22 innings this postseason.
Mississippi State coach Samantha Ricketts said Bowen did a “great job” of mixing locations with her pitches.
“She did a good job keeping us off-balanced,” she added. “We hit a lot of balls hard within the game plan but we just couldn’t quite get enough to fall that we needed to.”
The Wildcats played flawless defense behind Bowen with their fourth consecutive game without an error, including center fielder Janelle Meoño robbing slugger Mia Davidson of a home run in the first inning.
Lowe said the team’s defense is “our biggest momentum builder” and Meoño’s highlight-reel play to rob Davidson is symbolic of that.
“(Davidson) hit a ball to the fence and that should have given them momentum, but we used it to our advantage and made it our momentum,” Lowe said. “I thought that was big to kind of set the tone for the whole game.”
Both teams were scoreless through four innings in a pitcher’s duel between Bowen and Mississippi State’s Annie Willis. That’s when home run-hitting took over.
Davidson, who holds the SEC career record with 92 home runs, was not robbed of a home run in the fifth, blasting a solo shot to lead off the inning. It was her 23rd home run of the season. Her 92 home runs are the fifth-most in NCAA softball history.
“I felt pretty confident going into that at-bat,” Davidson said. “We’ve been working on this plan all week, really staying with the team focused on each other. I knew that if I just stick with the plan and trust it, I was going to hit the ball hard.”
Allie Skaggs answered in the top of the sixth with her 24th home run of the season, matching Washington’s Baylee Klingler for the Pac-12 lead.
The Wildcats up to that point against Willis had not reached third base while scattering four hits.
Matalasi Faapito’s home run to lead off the sixth inning gave Mississippi State its school-record 73rd homer of the season and put the Bulldogs ahead 2-1. It was Faapito’s 14th home run of the season.
Arizona answered again, rallying to tie the game at 2 in the top of the seventh.
After Blaise Biringer walked, Sophia Carroll reached first base on a bunt attempt because the umpires ruled Davidson, the catcher, interfered her ability to run to first base.
Ricketts said during the post-game press conference that Carroll’s hit was “debatable,” while Davidson was straightforward with her answer.
“I remember trying to get the ball,” Davidson said. “(Carroll) bunted right at the front. I just trying to get to the ball and I happened to touch her outside of the box and it didn’t go our way.”
Meoño, who finished 3 for 4 at the plate, hit an infield single to load the bases. Sharlize Palacios then hit a sacrifice fly to center field to score pinch-runner Giulia Koutsoyanopulos to tie the game.
Pacho’s home run, her 11th of the season, occurred on a 1-1 count from reliever Aspen Wesley (9-8).
It was her second home run of the postseason and Arizona’s eighth home run overall. Of the 14 runs scored by Arizona in the postseason, 11 were produced by a home run.
“I feel like when you’re playing behind a pitcher like Bow, you just try to do whatever you can to help her win or help the team win,” Pacho said. “So home run, double, single, walk, hit by pitch — whatever it is — it’s quality and we’ll take it.
“Whether we’re hitting home runs right now or we start piecing singles together, I feel like we just want to get runs across the board that makes Bow a little more comfortable in the circle or whoever’s pitching.”
Bowen (13-10) managed to get through with runners on scoring position in the second, third and fourth innings — including a bases-loaded situation in the third — to keep the Bulldogs scoreless.
Mississippi State stranded 11 baserunners in the game.
Lowe understandably withheld whether she will start Bowen or Devyn Netz in Saturday’s game. Netz pitched a complete-game victory over Missouri in the final game of the Columbia Regional last week.
“I know they all want the ball and (pitching coach) Taryne (Mowatt-McKinney) said they had great bullpens at practice,” Lowe said. “Everybody’s hungry for the ball and that’s what you want to see out of the pitching staff.
“We have two very strong, very deep pitching staffs on both sides and it’s going to take everybody just going at every pitch.”
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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. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.