Arizona sees improvement on mound

May, 27, 2009
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Sometimes things are exactly as simple as they seem. Consider coach Mike Candrea's assessment of his team after Arizona's 2-2 start to the season.

"We're depending on two kids on the mound that haven't had a lot of time," Candrea said back in February. "So you've got to go through the growing pains with them, try to stay positive and try to get better."

More than 130 home runs later, the Wildcats are back on familiar turf in Oklahoma City with a record-setting, high-octane offense. But if the bats fueled the program's 21st trip to the Women's College World Series, the growth of the pitchers (three in all, as it turned out) kept things from breaking down.

Arizona's pitching hadn't been great, certainly by the program's own lofty standards, but as Lindsey Sisk epitomized last weekend against Stanford, it has been resilient.

After pitching just 14.1 innings in April, and allowing 23 hits and 11 earned runs in the process, Sisk recorded two relief appearances of varying degrees of success in the first two games of the super regional against Stanford. But when called out of the bullpen in the first inning of the decisive third game, she responded with 14 strikeouts and seven innings of sterling relief to earn the win.

"She's been a kid that has kind of struggled to find herself this year," Candrea said Wednesday. "And the thing I give her credit on is that she has never quit working. She's worked hard to continue to be ready when her number was called. And it was called in Stanford, and [she] threw a phenomenal game for us.

"I think that's a great thing for young people to see, is that's part of the game sometimes. You go through the struggles, but if you keep your head screwed on, which is something that we preach as much as possible, that good things are going to happen."

Partly because of Sisk's struggles this season, senior Jennifer Martinez earned a spot in the pitching mix that Candrea referenced as a two-person derby in February. Behind Sarah Akamine, who emerged as a go-to workhorse, the Wildcats finished with the highest ERA of Candrea's tenure -- but also an ERA better than three Pac-10 teams, including defending champion and World Series entrant Arizona State.

"I think our entire [pitching staff has] improved tremendously, and I give a lot of that credit to Teresa," Candrea said of first-year pitching coach Teresa Wilson. "I brought her in for a reason because I knew I had some projects. And if you're going to be able to get them up to the level that they need to be, then you need to have someone that brings some experience to the table, that I think is a good teacher of the game and has been there and knows what the expectations are."

Akamine is almost certain to get the ball to start Arizona's showdown with Florida on Thursday night, and perhaps any other game the team plays here. She has outstanding control, having walked more than two batters in a game just once in 41 appearances (177.1 innings) this season. That makes for fewer runners on base when she does give up extra-base hits (53 so far).

"Put it this way: I feel better this week calling her number than I did a month ago," Candrea said of Sisk. "But I think time will tell -- we're going to look at the best matchup, and it might be Lindsey Sisk, it might be Akamine, it may be Martinez."

• With one major coaching vacancy already in play at Oregon, Wilson's name is likely to assume a prominent place in the offseason rumor mill. For his part, Candrea didn't sound particularly concerned about the prospect of finding a fourth pitching coach in as many seasons if the former Washington and Texas Tech coach, among other stops, chooses to pursue another head coaching position.

"I don't worry about losing anyone," Candrea said. "I think that's part of the job is to be a platform for assistant coaches to move on."

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.



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