Bottom of order duo sets table in victory
OKLAHOMA CITY -- If you've got to hit bottom before you can get back on your feet, K'Lee Arredondo and Adrienne Acton aren't a bad way to pad the landing.
Facing elimination earlier than expected at the Women's College World Series, No. 1 seed Arizona prolonged its stay in Oklahoma City with a 3-0 win against DePaul on Saturday night in front of a single-session record crowd of 8,222 at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium. With the win the Wildcats advance to play Pac-10 rival Washington on Sunday, needing two wins against the Huskies to earn a chance to defend their crown in the championship series beginning Monday.
Against DePaul, senior Caitlin Lowe did what All-Americans at Arizona do in times of peril, swinging away and lining a double off the base of the wall in left field to drive in two runs and break a scoreless tie in the fifth inning. But it was Arredondo and Acton, the bottom of Arizona's order, who came racing around third on Lowe's hit to score the runs that backed up Taryne Mowatt's two-hit shutout.
On a day when Arizona persevered as much as it prospered, a theme highlighted during the play that saw legendary coach Mike Candrea trip up his own legend-in-waiting and spark a rundown as Lowe took a wide turn around third base while looking to score in the fifth, the Wildcats countered an occasional lack of quality execution with its quantity of options.
"Today was a good example of everyone contributing, and I think that's a big part of our offense," Candrea said. "You know, Adrienne Acton did a hell of a job today. And you can go right down the order and everyone did their part, and that's really what a team is all about and that's what's important to us right now."
Arizona is 53-3 in World Series play in games in which it scores at least one run precisely because its entire lineup always seems to spring to life at this time of year.
The Wildcats are a good offensive team but they aren't a great offensive team. After Saturday's game, they're hitting .293 this season, a good mark for a team coming out of a conference like the Pac-10 but not on par with even some teams from that league -- or with the Arizona team that hit .311 en route to the championship last season.
But even in the midst of a disappointing sojourn in the loser's bracket here this weekend, Candrea sees signs of a team starting to get things going at the plate.
"Our batting practice the last couple of days has been phenomenal," Candrea said. "We've hit the ball as well as I've seen us hit. From a coach's standpoint, that's a good sign."
For years, part of Arizona's tremendous success has been its ability to get production out of the bottom of the order. Even in the shadow of big bats like Lovie Jung, Jennie Finch and others, the players at the bottom of Candrea's lineup card have acted as secondary and tertiary leadoff hitters, using speed and hitting ability to set the table ahead of the stars at the top of the lineup.
Instead of weighing down the bottom of the order with automatic outs who would leave a versatile leadoff hitter like Lowe with few RBI opportunities, Candrea's lineup often features players batting eighth and ninth with better batting averages than those directly in front of them. And according to one source quite familiar with the concept, he's never had a better tandem than Arredondo and Acton.
"I think they're the greatest we've ever had," Lowe said. "I think Adrienne has done an amazing job of becoming a second leadoff hitter. And I think K'Lee has filled that role too. I mean, I don't know how many times this postseason she's started a rally, Adrienne has moved her over and either me, Chelsie [Mesa] or Kristie [Fox] was able to hit her in."
Acton is a familiar face in the No. 9 hole. Blessed with blazing speed, she played a key role in last year's title, helping set the table for Lowe and Autumn Champion as the Wildcats rolled through Oklahoma City undefeated. This season has been more of the same, with a .315 average a .450 on-base percentage and 11 stolen bases. But it's Arredondo, a highly-touted freshman, who brings a new dynamic to the equation.
"I know Adrienne and I, we come up big together, and we always work well together," Arredondo said. "If I can get on, she has the speed to bunt me over and she can even get on herself with the bunt."
So it was that with pinch runner Jill Malina on first base after Sam Bannister walked to open the top of the fifth inning against DePaul, Candrea let Arredondo hit away instead of having her bunt the runner into scoring position. The freshman responded on the first pitch, lining a single through the middle and eventually scoring on Lowe's double after Acton reached on a bunt single (Malina was picked off third base before Lowe's hit).
"I think right now she's seeing the ball well, she's staying in on the ball and staying through the ball," Candrea said of his freshman. "She prepares well. She loves to hit -- sometimes she loves to hit too damn much; she doesn't know when things are good -- but she's grown a lot. She's grown a lot mentally."
An infielder who moved to outfield for the first time this season, blocked at her natural position of shortstop by All-American Fox and at second base by Chelsie Mesa, Arredondo wouldn't argue Candrea's point. Between adjusting to a new position, a new level of softball and initially hitting second between Lowe and Fox, her early experience was a little overwhelming.
"In the beginning of the season, I wasn't completely comfortable yet," Arredondo said before she rephrased in less parsed terms. "I was really scared, to be honest with you."
But after learning to play the outfield with the assistance of Lowe and Acton, two of the best defensive outfielders in the game, she found a comfort level on both sides of the ball.
"I started batting right-handed and left-handed, because I'm a switch hitter, and come the Pac-10 and around UCLA [the first weekend of April], I stayed on the left side. And since then I've had one focus, from the left side, and it's been working for me."
The result is a hitter far more dangerous right now than a .256 average suggests after two hits and two runs against the Blue Demons. With Arredondo starting to look more and more like the next in the long line of great Arizona hitters, Candrea is getting closer and closer to having his top-to-bottom lineup productivity.
Not a bad contribution for a formerly scared freshman.
"I think that she's really just grown as a player," Lowe said. "She started out the year kind of shaky, but to step up in the postseason, for a young player, is just amazing. The fact that you can come out here with all the pressure on you and perform is just amazing for her."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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