Arizona Wildcats pitcher Kenzie Fowler started 22 games in the regular season but never did what she accomplished in her first postseason start of the year.
She, encouragingly, did not walk a batter.
Fowler, whose junior season has been marked with the most enduring struggles of her career, helped lead Arizona to a 7-2 victory over Notre Dame in the winners’ bracket of an NCAA regional at Hillenbrand Stadium on Saturday.
The UA advances to the championship game Sunday at 2:30 p.m. against Notre Dame, which beat North Dakota State on Saturday night to advance in the double-elimination regional. The Wildcats will have two chances, if necessary, to win and advance to next week’s Super Regional.
Fowler worked in and out of trouble Saturday, as the Irish had at least one runner in scoring position in four of the six innings she pitched. But she often got the big outs, and didn’t make things worse by giving away free passes to first base.
“There have been control issues in the past for me,” Fowler said after allowing eight hits and two runs, one earned, in six innings.
“I have really been working on eliminating those. I did my job. Personally, for me, that’s an achievement. Make them earn it. That’s been our little motto lately. Just go at them and attack batters. Let them hit into our defense.
“It’s a mentality. I know I can hit spots. I know I can do it. As a pitcher, you get a little headsy sometimes. You just have to go back to basics and attack.”
Shelby Babcock came in for the seventh inning, with Candrea wanting to give the Irish a different look the fourth time through the order. Babcock retired Notre Dame in order.
Candrea, on Sunday, said he saw signs of his two-person pitching staff “turning the corner” — and that is clearly reflected in the walk category.
Arizona walked 35 batters in a late-season six-game stretch against Oregon and UCLA, losing four of those games.
The Cats have walked only four batters in the ensuing five games, including two in the postseason.
“I feel right now we have two very good pitchers that can keep us in any ballgame,” Candrea said.
Fowler waked seven in six innings in a recent start vs. UCLA. Earlier this season, she walked eight in a 4.1 innings at ASU. That’s the kind of year it has been for her.
She entered Saturday with a 2.78 ERA and a 14-8 record, having lost five of her last seven decisions.
But that’s all history. All that matters is what she does the rest of this postseason.
“I think the biggest thing is she’s healthy and she’s feeling good,” said assistant coach Alicia Hollowell, a former UA All-American pitcher.
“She’s the type that when she feels good, you just see her take off. I think the biggest thing as a pitcher, when you trust all your stuff, you will go at anybody with your best at their weakness and know you can get them.”
Hollowell has been an intriguing addition, elevated from director of operations to assistant coach when Larry Ray was suspended (following an arrest) before the final regular-season series.
Candrea said Hollowell and assistant Stacy Iveson have been “tag-teaming” the pitchers with positive results, especially mentally. To wit: The attacking of the strike zone.
Fowler, as has been the case for the past few years, has battled health problems, which has affected her confidence, Candrea said.
“But, sometimes, when you’re pitching well, your physical issues don’t get as big,” Candrea said.
“It just adds up to being healthy as a whole person right now for her. Our key has been trying to make her healthy — physically, mentally and emotionally — so she can be able to play the dang game and let her talents take over.”
Fowler was a first-team All-American as a freshman, when she led the Cats to the championship round of the Women’s College World Series. She was a second-team All-American last year.
Fowler wasn’t even honorable mention All-Pac-12 this season.
“In this game, you kind of have to stick with it. As long as they stick with it mentally, then it’s really easy for you to stick with it as a coach,” Candrea said.
“It’s just a matter of them helping themselves sometimes. I think Kenzie got to the point where she said, ‘You know, I have to help myself and it’s time to get going.’ …
“I think there has been some struggles in her mind that she has had to get over. It’s been a process.”
There is still time for Arizona to hope that the process leads to a postseason payoff.
Related: Arizona-Notre Dame game blog