Arizona's speedy leadoff hitters fly by Oregon State
Autumn Champion and Caitlin Lowe helped Arizona beat rival Oregon State 3-2 in nine innings in the first game of the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Satchel Paige frequently regaled listeners with stories of Negro league legend Cool Papa Bell's quickness. Paige said Bell was so fast, he could turn off a light switch and be in bed before the room was dark.
Coach: Mike Candrea
Road/Neutral record: 19-7
Pac-10 record: 15-6
Road to Oklahoma City (No. 2 overall seed)
vs. Marist, 9-0 W (Tucson Regional)
vs. Ohio State, 6-3 W (Tucson Regional)
vs. Auburn, 4-2 W (Tucson Regional)
vs. LSU 5-0 W (Tucson Super Regional)
vs. LSU 3-2 L (Tucson Super Regional)
vs. LSU 14-5 W (Tucson Super Regional)
Notable nonconference wins: Northwestern, Texas, Texas A&M (2), Alabama, Louisiana-Lafayette (3), Baylor (3), South Florida, Ohio State
Notable nonconference losses: Texas (2), Texas A&M
Lineup note: Since midseason, Mowatt has been a regular as the DP when Hollowell pitches. When Mowatt is in the circle, Sam Banister generally fills the role of DP.
Getting to know the Wildcats
Hollowell is one of the most decorated pitchers in the college game, and Lowe is the engine that drives a very young Wildcats team on offense, making it all the more impressive that Arizona is taking its accustomed place in Oklahoma City after losing both for extended periods of time this season.
Ranked No. 1 for much of the early season, the team faltered in late March and early April without the two stars and appeared to be searching for an identity. Sophomore pitcher Taryne Mowatt picked up the slack in the circle, winning 20 games this season to emerge as Hollowell's eventual successor, but an inexperienced lineup scored just 15 runs in Arizona's first eight conference games. But with the experience gained by young players under adverse conditions, and with Lowe and Hollowell back in action, the Wildcats are once again playing typical Arizona softball. Never was the growth more evident than when they exploded for 14 runs against LSU, led by Kristie Fox's eight RBI, to clinch a spot in Oklahoma City.
Candrea has shown a willingness to stick with Mowatt in the postseason, giving the Wildcats either the luxury of a second option in Oklahoma City or a well-rested Hollowell (she's on pace to pitch the fewest innings of her career, thanks in part to the time on the shelf) should they stick exclusively with the senior.
Player to Watch: Callista Balko, C
Finding shade isn't always easy in the Arizona desert, but sophomore catcher Callista Balko has more options than most thanks to the large shadows cast by others in the program at the University of Arizona. Between junior outfielder Caitlin Lowe's .400 average and outfield heroics, senior Alicia Hollowell's staggering strikeout totals and coach Mike Candrea's national profile, the Wildcats have more national name recognition than many entire conferences. So it seems almost unfair that in Balko, they appear to have developed yet another emerging star.
Balko started 50 games as a freshman in 2005, gaining valuable experience on a team that went to the College World Series. But she also took her share of lumps at the plate (in addition to the lumps earned behind the plate while catching Hollowell's heat), hitting just .205 on the season and striking out 50 times. But with Candrea repeatedly flummoxed by his young lineup, and Lowe out for essentially 10 games this season (she didn't play in nine and pinch ran in a 10th), Balko was one of several young players, along with junior-college transfer Chelsie Mesa, to finally step up in support of mainstays Kristie Fox and Autumn Champion.
Arizona heads to Oklahoma City having won 15 of 16 games, a run that began following an 8-2 drubbing at the hands of UCLA in Los Angeles on April 23 (a win that gave the Bruins a regular-season sweep of the Wildcats). Before a tough day against LSU in the super regionals, Balko had been hitting .431 with an astounding seven home runs and 21 RBI in the first 14 wins of the streak. With another dangerous bat added to a roster that already includes two great pitchers and some experienced run producers, the Wildcats may have all the pieces to seek revenge on UCLA, and everyone else, in Oklahoma City.
It wasn't quite the stuff of folklore, but in helping Arizona beat rival Oregon State 3-2 in nine innings in the first game of the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City, outfielders Autumn Champion and Caitlin Lowe left compelling evidence that while Einstein's theories may be safe -- the lightning bolts that interrupted the game in the fifth inning still hold an overall quickness edge -- both players are definitely speedy enough to slap a ball on the ground and be on first base before the infielder even has a chance to catch the ball.
Arizona's two masters of psychological softball leave opposing pitchers and fielders flustered, flummoxed and ultimately forlorn.
"A lot of times, Caitlin gets on and my job is to move her over, or if I can get on as well, that's awesome," Champion said. "Caitlin's really good at getting on base. We've played together for eight years now, so we've kind of got the hang of it. If both of us can get on, great, but if Caitlin doesn't get on, then I'm the leadoff batter, and I've batted leadoff, too. I think it puts a lot of pressure on the defense because we're both very fast."
Locked in a scoreless draw and facing Oregon State ace Brianne McGowan entering the bottom of the third inning, Arizona's initial outburst started innocently enough, with a walk to designated player Taryne Mowatt. Two outs later, Arizona had a runner on second base after Adrienne Acton reached on a fielder's choice and stole second. Lowe, who was thrown out on a smooth play by Oregon State shortstop Mia Longfellow in the first inning, then bounced another one into the hole. For almost any other hitter, it would have been an inning-ending ground out, but Lowe got to the bag well before Longfellow's throw arrived. And she wasn't done yet, stealing second base soon thereafter.
That alone might have been discouraging enough for McGowan, who appeared to have made a good enough pitch to get out of the inning, only to find herself with runners on first and third. But it only got worse with Champion coming to the plate. A slap hitter, she was hitting .411 entering the game.
The senior delivered the big hit, not with a towering shot over the outfield wall, but with a towering bouncer that didn't nestle in Longfellow's glove until half a second before Champion crossed first base. The infield single scored Acton from third for the game's first run. Shortstop Kristie Fox followed with a single that drove in Lowe from third, giving Arizona a 2-0 lead.
It wasn't the first time Lowe and Champion had seemed to be working in concert on offense. Both hailing from Tustin, Calif., and Foothills High School, the two players have been working together for nearly a decade, establishing the kind of chemistry usually reserved for pitchers and catchers or quarterbacks and wide receivers.
"When I get on base, I know exactly what she's going to do, she knows exactly what I'm thinking -- when I'm stealing, stuff like that," Lowe said.
To their credit, the Beavers did come back to tie Thursday's game after a lengthy rain delay, but as the game moved to the bottom of the ninth, Lowe and Champion teamed up again to set the table for victory. After leading off the inning with a single and moving to second on Champion's sacrifice bunt, Lowe made a dash for home when Fox lifted a single into center. A slight bobble from the center fielder, perhaps a result of seeing Lowe making the turn at third, ensured the winning run and saved Arizona from the loser's bracket.
"I see it as we have two leadoff hitters at the top of the order, so if one of us doesn't get on, the other one is going to do the job," Lowe said. "And if I do get one, she's a great bunter and can move me over, and she can get on base at the same time. Really, we just know that one of us is going to get on base for Kristie [Fox] to get the RBI in."
Both Lowe (.488 OBP entering the game) and Champion (.476 OBP) reach base nearly half the time, spending almost as much time in the infield on offense as they do in the outfield on defense. And with that kind of speed and presence at the top of the order, it's hardly surprising that Fox's 65 RBI have come on 75 hits. (By comparison, Oregon State's RBI leader, Adrienne Alo needed 52 hits for 32 RBI this season). When a .400 hitter like Fox has an RBI rate like that, it's a sign of something special at the top of the order.
Lowe has extra-base power when she swings away, but the duo generally does their damage base by base, combining for 116 singles among 145 hits and stealing 44 bases. Exactly what kind of mental toll that takes on pitchers is a topic for sports psychologists, but in games like the ones in Oklahoma City -- where the overall talent level makes wasting any potential outs dangerous -- it has to be at least a little demoralizing to see runners reach, advance and score without their outfielders ever getting involved on defense.
"In this last game, I had a couple of high bouncers, and when we do that, they have no chance," Champion said. "I mean, they can throw it and maybe get an overthrow, or a lot of times they just hold the ball. So you can definitely sense the frustration, especially when both of us get on, because it puts a lot of pressure on them."
As the pressure mounts in the coming days, matching the rising heat and humidity in Oklahoma City, a lot of teams may find themselves driven to distraction by the two people setting up Arizona's success.
And at that point, even if Lowe and Champion can't beat the darkness, it could be lights out for the opposition.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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