May 29, 2010

By Patrick Finley
Special to NCAA.com


TUCSON, Ariz. - Kenzie Fowler, the Arizona Wildcats' ace and their difference-maker in the playoffs, bent over in pain.

The second batter of Game 2 of Saturday's super regional, BYU's J.C. Clayton, had lined a shot back at Fowler's tender right forearm. Fowler, who had struggled with the injury for three weeks, grimaced in pain and left the game.

At the time, Arizona led, 1-0.

All the drama made the 10-2, five-inning outcome of Saturday's game that much more astounding.

Not only did the Wildcats (48-11) reach the Women's College World Series for the 22nd time in 23 years, they did so without their ace. No. 2 starter Sarah Akamine, the Wildcats' de facto No. 1 pitcher last season, was dominant in Fowler's place. She struck out four of the first five players she faced, although she allowed one run to score on a wild pitch in the first inning.

"It was huge," Akamine, a senior, said. "That first inning, I was pretty nervous coming in. I had to be ready for that. We just started stepping up after that inning."

Wildcats coach Mike Candrea spoke to Akamine before she entered the game, after she had spent 14 minutes warming up.

"He told me to be ready before the game, ready for anything," she said. "Anything could happen. "It's taken me this long to get ready and get prepared."

Then the Wildcats' offense took over.

Arizona scored four runs in the third, and five runs in the fourth, thanks in part to a wild performance by BYU (46-13) starter Christie Zumanti, who walked home Lini Koria for the Wildcats' first run in the first inning, after allowing one single and two bases on balls.

After breezing through the second, Zumanti's control troubles returned. She walked the bases loaded, and then walked Koria again to give the Wildcats a 2-1 lead. That brought in Paige Affleck, Friday's starter, who allowed a two-run single to Kristen Arriola.

Baillie Kirker then dribbled a ball to third baseman Angeline Quiocho, who booted it to give Arizona a 5-1 lead.

"Finally got the bats unglued," Candrea said.

The Wildcats brought nine batters to the plate in the fourth inning. K'Lee Arredondo singled to right field, but the Cougars' Delaney Willard booted the ball and allowed Brittany Lastrapes to score.

After a double play moved Arredondo to third, she scored on a Brigette Del Ponte single to take a 7-1 lead.

After Koria walked, Kristen Arriola doubled home two for the 9-1 lead. Kirker singled home Arriola for the 10th run.

"Arizona's hitters made great adjustments," BYU coach Gordon Eakin said.

They got some help, too. Eakin said "we suspect" the Wildcats noticed that the Cougars' hurlers were tipping their pitches. Candrea said he noticed BYU was tipping Friday night, but that the Cougars changed Saturday.

The Wildcats' return to the sport's biggest stage comes with an interesting plot line - Fowler's health. The past three weeks, the freshman struggled with soreness in her right forearm.

The line drive hit her in that forearm, but Candrea said the pain was different than the original injury. Fowler received an X-ray, which came up clean.

"No breaks," Candrea said. "It's just sore right now."

Pitching is key in the WCWS, Candrea said. Last year, with Fowler in high school, Arizona lost two games in Oklahoma City.

The coach likes his chances this year.

"We have more people right now that I think are battle-ready," he said. "I think that we're better in the circle. Sarah's better than she was. We can match people pitch for pitch."