Arizona softball putting it together — just in time

TUCSON, Ariz. – Sound the alarms. It’s NCAA softball tournament time.

Apparently, Arizona heard the noise just in time, because the team is finally playing with purpose and emotion. It’s been a while.

“They are having a lot of fun, and that’s good,” said coach Mike Candrea, who has guided UA to 27 consecutive postseason appearances and eight NCAA titles.

Arizona faces Baylor on Friday night in College Station, Texas, in what will be a rare NCAA road trip for the Wildcats. That’s the result of a disappointing season by Arizona standards, as the Cats finished 32-24 overall and flirted with last place in the Pac-12 at 9-15. A losing season in conference play? Softball blasphemy.

Heck, there was even talk of Arizona — gulp! — not even making the tournament. But the Wildcats, after starting 1-8, found some intestinal fortitude to finish 4-2, beating rival Arizona State and Stanford in their final two series.  

“I really felt we had what it took to at least get into the NCAAs,” said Candrea when asked if he had any postseason doubt. “We did have a pretty good run at the end. I had confidence all year that we could do it. It was just a matter of putting pieces of the puzzle together.”

Arizona’s puzzle assembly continues.

Although Shelby Babcock returned to practice on Tuesday, UA’s ace was considered questionable for Friday’s game with Baylor after suffering what she said was the flu. Still, Babcock’s numbers aren’t eye-popping at 16-10 with a 3.68 earned-run average. She leads a trio of pitchers whose numbers are comparable: Estela Pinon is 12-8 with a 3.67 ERA and Nancy Bowling is 6-8 with 4.25 ERA.

“Our backs would be against the wall,” Candrea said of the possibility of Babcock not pitching. “Nancy has come on quite well recently, and Stella has shown she can throw at this level. And anything can happen in the NCAAs.”

Through the years, “anything” has happened for Arizona a few times, as the Wildcats have won eight titles. But the last two years, Oklahoma has eliminated UA twice. And guess who looms if the Cats were to advance past Texas A&M, Penn and Baylor? Of course, Oklahoma, the No. 1 seed in the tournament.

But first things first. Arizona must get through those in College Station. Right now, it looks like UA has a fighting chance. Outside of starting 10-1 (against weaker competition), Arizona arguably hasn’t played any better than it has the last two weeks.

“We’re playing with much more confidence and executing the game much better,” Candrea said. “I think we are in a good position. I did (feel they’d click at some point). I felt like the growing pains are painful when you have to go through them, but I thought there would be a time when we play the game with a little more confidence. That’s what has occurred. It’s a good time to be playing that way.”

A perfect time, actually.

The Wildcats used to own the stretch from mid-May to Memorial Day. From Debbie Day to Nancy Evans to Jennie Finch – all elite pitchers – Arizona always found a way to get it done. But this year – up until now – Arizona has struggled to find consistency and punch. In fact, Candrea hadn’t seen a season like this in, well, ever. In his first season, he went 27-13-1. The worst season before this was last year’s, when UA flirted with 20 losses in going 39-18, eventually reaching the Super Regional — which, of course, meant UA caught fire at the right time only to fall to Oklahoma.

“You don’t ever plan for a year like this, but it was a year when you’re up and down,” Candrea said. “We just never played with a lot of consistency until the last couple of weeks. It was a challenge, but it was good to see us put it all together. All you can do is keep working hard and believe in the process. Now, we have a chance in the postseason.”

His message to his team: Arizona is “0-0 and starting with a clean slate.”

The Cats’ postseason story will be written beginning on Friday in College Station.