Kenzie Fowler reacts on Sunday after a great running catch by left fielder Brittany Lastrapes against Tennessee/ESPN3.com screenshot
Rarely has Arizona asked a freshman pitcher to do so much, and never has a pitcher arrived on campus amid so much hype, such great expectations.
Kenzie Fowler‘s first season was a rousing success.
“It’s just great to see Kenzie as a freshman step up,” senior shortstop K’Lee Arredondo said at the press conference after the Wildcats lost to UCLA in the championship series of the Women’s College World Series on Tuesday night. “She’s my hero.”
If there was one thing we learned this season about the Wildcats, who finished 52-14, is that Fowler has the stuff of a champion.
She pitched Arizona to victory in four elimination games at the World Series — overcoming the illegal pitch calls that had not been made against her all season — and had done enough to get the victory in Game 1 of the championship series before the defense faltered with two outs in the seventh.
Before that, she overcame a pinched nerve in her neck that caused her pitching hand to swell in the last weekend of the regular season, and she continued on after being hit by a line drive in the Super Regionals, causing her forearm to turn black and blue.
But early in Tuesday’s game against the Bruins, enough was enough. Starting her sixth game in four days, the pinched nerve problem began to resurface. She was losing feeling in her arm and had trouble with her grip.
Fowler was pulled one batter into the second inning, ending her season.
“She has thrown a bunch. I mean, my God, she has really done a miraculous job to get us here and I told you I was going to ride her as much as I can,” Arizona coach Mike Candrea said at the postgame news conference.
“But when she can’t feel the ball, it’s time. I’m going to always put her health in front of the competition.”
Most star pitchers at Arizona have had the luxury to be eased into the competition. Not Fowler.
Arizona had Debby Day when Susie Parra arrived.
Arizona had Parra when Nancy Evans arrived.
Arizona had Becky Lemke when Jennie Finch came to Tucson.
Kenzie Fowler hugs coach Mike Candrea after the Wildcats beat Tennessee on Sunday to advance to the championship series against UCLA/ESPN3.com screenshot
The only season comparable to one Fowler just completed came in 2003, when Alicia Hollowell had to carry the staff as a freshman. Their numbers are similar.
Hollowell was 40-5, striking out 394 batters in 293 2/3 innings with a 0.94 ERA.
Fowler — facing today’s better bat technology and an explosion of power in the game — was 38-9, striking out 371 batters in 284 1/3 innings with a 1.53 ERA.
Like Fowler, Hollowell was arguably the top pitching recruit in the country at the time, but Hollowell, from California, never had to deal with the pressure of being the hometown kid. Fowler was a two-time Gatorade National Player of the Year at Canyon del Oro High School.
“The one comment that she would make during the season is that, ‘Gosh, the difference in this level of play, you just can’t let up,’” said Kenzie’s mom, Kelly Fowler.
“Every batter can hurt you. You can’t afford to miss a spot, or you will pay for it. … In high school, you could just cruise.”
No, Fowler couldn’t cruise, which makes her season all the more remarkable. She fought. She was mentally tough. Willing to play through injury.
Candrea says he never knows how a recruit will react under the brightest of lights. But now everyone knows about the kind of character Fowler is made of.
It makes you wish next season could start tomorrow.
So much for the Amanda Williams Era
With the 2010 season complete, this ends the Amanda Williams Era at Arizona.
In coach Mike Candrea‘s master plan, Kenzie Fowler would never have had to shoulder as much of the burden as she did this season. And wouldn’t it have been nice to have had a second ace to go to at the World Series?
Williams arrived at Arizona in the fall of 2006, yet another recruit considered the top pitching prospect in the country. Williams was supposed to be the bridge between Alicia Hollowell and Fowler.
But Williams lasted only a semester, academically ineligible. She never returned.
Without Williams around, Taryne Mowatt was forced to pitch almost 70 more innings in 2007 than anyone in school history — 370 innings in all — and yet she willed the Wildcats to the national title.
But Arizona has been shorthanded in pitching ever since. In 2008, Mowatt couldn’t repeat her 2007 performance. In 2009, Sarah Akamine and Lindsey Sisk weren’t ace material. In 2010, Fowler could have used a little more help. Williams was supposed to be a senior this season.
But Candrea and his coaching staff — although they looked for a transfer or another short-term solution after Williams left — failed to lure another pitching recruit. Everyone knew Fowler was arriving, and it was hard to bring in a recruit to compete with that.
So, the early departure of Williams was a major setback for the program … and still Arizona won a national title and played for another during the short-handed pitching years in which she should have been here.
Akamine has completed her eligibility, but next season, Fowler will be joined by Shelby Babcock — an ace-quality pitcher from Broomfield, Colo. Down the road, Arizona has a commitment from Nancy Bowling, who just completed her sophomore season at Royal High in Simi Valley, Calif.
It appears the pitching succession plan is back on track.