Bottom of the 12th inning. Arizona down by two runs. It was last Sunday, and the Wildcats were in trouble in the NCAA regional against Hofstra.
If UA lost, it would have to play another game against Hofstra, the loser eliminated from the NCAA tournament. Ace pitcher Kenzie Fowler was gassed, having pitched more than 11 innings. Backup pitcher Sarah Akamine was nursing a knee injury.
It looked like potential disaster.
Seemingly making matters worse, Arizona’s No. 9 hitter was up.
Except sophomore outfielder Karissa Buchanan, a Sabino High graduate, isn’t performing like any old No. 9 hitter.
It is one of coach Mike Candrea‘s hallmarks that his bottom-of-the-order hitter is really like a top-of-the-order hitter. It might seem no-brainer stuff now in college softball, but his lineup construction — speedy slap-hitting left-handers at the top and bottom of the order, sandwiching power hitters in the middle — was kind of revolutionary a couple of decades ago.
Buchanan perfectly fits the mold. She led off that 12th with a classic slap-hitting play: Hit the ball to the shortstop and run like crazy. She barely beat the throw to first and was on base when K’Lee Arredondo tied the game with a triple.
Arizona then went on to win 10-6 on a grand slam from Lini Koria.
“That was a pretty big game,” Buchanan said. “I don’t think I have ever played a game like that, coming back the way we did.”
Buchanan has made a nice comeback of her own. She hit .266 as the part-time right fielder last season. Not bad. Not great. This season, she has singled her way to a .387 batting average.
Here’s where it gets better: She led the team with a .426 batting average in Pac-10 games, when the opponents’ pitching got even tougher.
“She has been a real big blessing for us in the nine-spot,” Candrea said. “I look at the nine-spot now as an opportunity to get things started. I would say she has been our most improved player to this point.”
Some of the difference from last season to this season has been adjustments made by assistant coach Larry Ray, renowned as one of the top short-game instructors in the nation.
“Just slowing everything down,” she said. “I felt like last year I was in a rush in everything.”
A big part of the improvement, too, has been simple confidence. It was a blow to the ego to come from being a .500 hitter in high school to a .266 batter as a freshman. But a few more hits breeds a little more confidence, which breeds a few more hits, which breeds a little more confidence …
“It’s typical for a freshman to come in and struggle,” Ray said. “I don’t care what program they come from. Some of it is just awe of the place or the players who are surrounding them.
“But I really paid attention to Karissa over the years as to how she did against good pitching, and she was very successful. Now, she knows she can play at this level and put the ball in play against anybody.”
Buchanan has been this kind of successful lately: She is hitting .474 (27 of 57) in her past 19 games.
Arizona’s top of the order — with juniors Brittany Lastrapes and Schutzler batting 1-2 — will remain in intact for another year. Buchanan might have to wait until she’s a senior to move up in the batting order.
But, for now, it’s quite a comfort for Arizona to know she’s hitting ninth.
“She has a couple of good years ahead of her,” Candrea said.
Arizona vs. BYU, 4 p.m., Hillenbrand Stadium, NCAA Super Regional
Arizona vs. BYU, 1:30 p.m., Hillenbrand Stadium, NCAA Super Regional
Arizona vs. BYU, 30 minutes after first game, Hillenbrand Stadium, NCAA Super Regional (if necessary)
*Winner of the best-of-three series advances to the Women’s College World Series.