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Walk-on pitcher is savior for UA staff

Citizen Staff Writer



One inning. That was about all Jen Martinez wanted. One inning in an Arizona Wildcat uniform.

That would be her reward for an amazing journey that has taken her to three colleges and through more than one crisis of confidence. At one point, discouraged and beaten down emotionally, she nearly walked away from the game.

One inning.

When she walked on at Arizona in the fall of 2007, even that seemed out of reach.

“She couldn’t throw a damn strike,” UA coach Mike Candrea said.

And now?

“She has come from nowhere,” Candrea said.

This kind of story usually doesn’t happen in major college softball. It certainly doesn’t happen at Arizona. The Wildcats have had an uninterrupted stream of All-American pitchers for nearly two decades.

They don’t need any walk-on pitchers, thank you, other than to throw some batting practice.

But this season is unlike any other in Arizona history, with the Wildcats caught in an uncomfortable valley between former ace Taryne Mowatt and future ace Kenzie Fowler.

Sophomore pitcher Lindsey Sisk has struggled. Junior Sarah Akamine, an infielder converted to full-time pitching duties, has struggled. The team ERA of 2.78 is an all-time high for the program.

Hold the All-American awards, but Martinez, a senior who had an unsightly season ERA of 5.56 the last time she pitched in Division I softball, is Arizona’s best pitcher.

“I feel like I’m part of something bigger than I have ever imagined in softball,” she said.

One inning has turned into 62 1/2 for Martinez. Her ERA is a team-low 2.46. She is the only UA pitcher who is striking out more than one batter an inning. She is the only one allowing less than a hit per inning.

“We started throwing her a little bit, and she has gotten better and better,” Candrea said. “She has worked really hard and gained kind of a new life.”

Martinez has been preparing for this all her softball life.

Her first pitching coach was former UA All-American Susie Parra, and her travel ball coach was another Candrea disciple, former team manager Kurt Ludwigsen. Each helped direct Martinez to Arizona.

“From my very first pitching lesson, I was brought up the Arizona way,” Martinez said.

And that means, from Parra to Ludwigsen to Candrea, she has heard a million times: “It’s the process, not the outcome . . . it’s the process, not the outcome . . .”

Martinez wasn’t heavily recruited out of La Habra (Calif.) High School, signing with Long Beach State. She spent two seasons there, going 2-10 as a sophomore with a 5.56 ERA.

“It wasn’t anything what I was expecting it to be,” she said. “I don’t want to say too much about it, but the coach wore me down mentally to the point where I basically wanted to quit softball.”

Instead, she landed at Division II Cal State Dominguez Hills, where, through attrition, she ended up being the only pitcher. She pitched more than 235 innings, which was good for the softball soul, if not for the arm. It was the process.

“I needed the pitching time to grow and mature on the mound,” she said.

At this point, Parra and Ludwigsen suggested that Martinez walk on at Arizona, and they lobbied Candrea on her behalf.

“She needed to fall back in love with the game,” Ludwigsen said of Martinez’s career after Long Beach State. “The environment I knew she deserved would come from Coach (Candrea).”

It’s true, she admits, that she could hardly throw a strike when she arrived at UA.

Arizona was practicing bunt defense, and her job was to groove pitches down the middle for the hitters.

“I couldn’t find the strike zone, and then I was in my own head,” Martinez said.

Said Candrea: “When she got here, she was in awe, in awe to a point where she had convinced herself she didn’t belong here. That was kind of the feeling I got.”

The 2008 season was a wash. Martinez redshirted while UA had an interim pitching coach after the departure of Nancy Evans.

She took a confidence-building step last summer with Ludwigsen’s NorCal Assault travel team, competing in the women’s division of the Canada Cup against Olympic teams from Australia, Canada and the Czech Republic.

Then UA hired Teresa Wilson, an accomplished head coach, as its pitching coach last fall.

“When she first came here, I talked to her and said, ‘I don’t have a whole lot of time to change, could we please work with what we have?’ ” Martinez said.

“I felt like I was afraid to change. I was afraid to put my pitching in her hands.”

And then, remembering it’s always about the process, she decided to do just that — put her pitching in Wilson’s hands.

Martinez has responded to a few new tweaks and suggestions. She has the best change-up on the staff, a must-have pitch at this level.

More and more, Candrea has taken to bringing in Martinez in the middle innings and let her try to finish the game.

Martinez will get more chances this weekend as No. 9 Arizona (31-7) takes a key Pac-10 road trip to Washington and UCLA.

“Oh my gosh, I can’t even tell you how much this is a dream come true,” Martinez said.

“I have basically exceeded expectations for myself far beyond what I could ever imagine. I’m getting great coaching, and I love the girls on my team.

“It took a long time to get here, but I would not change anything about the journey I took. Arizona is the perfect fit for me.”

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