Arizona's lineup makes small ball must-see TV

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Arizona Wildcats make the mundane mesmerizing.

Like a History Channel documentary on the history of gardening implements, watching a display of bunting, slapping and stealing generally qualifies as must-see viewing only if seven or eight feet of snow block the door and the paint has long since dried on the walls.

That is, of course, until the Wildcats break out the short game and their bats become guitar strings beneath Dylan's fingers and the basepaths become a blank canvas in the hands of Rembrandt.

Arizona seized control of the best-of-three championship series at the Women's College World Series by blanking Northwestern 8-0 on Monday night in Oklahoma City.

And no, this wasn't one of those games that was closer than the final score indicated.

Mike Candrea's Wildcats dominated from start to finish, much as they had in Sunday's elimination game against Tennessee. They jumped on Northwestern early, collecting eight hits and pressuring a team that had looked so poised against UCLA into four ugly errors. But even in putting together the most impressive offensive onslaught of the tournament -- scoring 14 runs in 24 hours -- Arizona did things its own way.

One base at a time, with the opening salvo beginning on a bunt single from No. 9 hitter Adrienne Acton.

"Speed kills," Candrea said. "And obviously when you see us putting the ball on the ground and forcing them to make decisions quickly, a lot of things can happen. And that's kind of what we live and die on. Any time we can set the table with our leadoff hitter -- in fact, Adrienne's done a great job in the ninth spot of getting on and starting things throughout this College World Series -- but you get those three kids [Acton, Caitlin Lowe and Autumn Champion] on base and you blink an eye and they're taking a base.

"And I think that's basically Arizona softball."

Candrea is the ultimate architect of Arizona softball, the man who built a program in the desert that has already won six national championships and stands one win away from a seventh. But assistant coach Larry Ray is the Omar Bradley to Candrea's Eisenhower, the man charged with crafting the short game and making sure the players are ready to execute the philosophy. And since Candrea's knee surgery earlier this year, Ray has also been the man coaching third for the Wildcats, relaying the signs to the hitters and keeping them calm during at-bats.

"When I first got here, Coach Ray [helped] me a lot with my short game," Acton said. "He's pretty much taught me everything. He's made a huge impact on me as a player. And out there on the field, when I'm in the batter's box, because he helps me, he helps Cait and Autumn. Even in between pitches he tells us, 'You're leaving too early' or 'You're leaving too late.' So just having him at third base and looking at him and those key pointers is helpful, plus what he's done all season."

In his 15th year at Arizona -- the last five in a row after a stint as the head coach charged with starting the program at the University of Florida -- Ray isn't a salesman looking to sell something he doesn't believe in. In fact, he might be an even bigger proponent of the aggressive attack than Candrea. When Candrea took a sabbatical in 2004 to lead the U.S. Olympic team that won gold in Athens, Ray led the Wildcats to a 55-6 record. Along the way, his team swiped the second-most stolen bases in program history (and the Wildcats are still running, as Lowe's steal against Northwestern tied the WCWS record for stolen bases with four).

"When we first come in, [Ray] likes to establish footwork, basic general principles of slapping," Lowe said. "He kind of lets us go from there, but he makes sure the basics are there for us."

Designated player Taryne Mowatt's two-run double in the five-run third inning was the exception that proved the rule, at the time representing just the second extra-base hit of Arizona's entire stay in Oklahoma City. Second baseman Chelsie Mesa and Mowatt added afterthought home runs in the seventh inning, but those were Arizona's first homers in the team's last 58 2/3 innings of play at the Women's College World Series.

The Wildcats can play long ball, but they treat the big hits like the sports car in the garage that gets waxed more often than it gets on the road. The ride that takes them where they need to go is far less flashy.

When asked whether Arizona is simply better at the short game than any team in the country, Lowe offered another theory for the team's success.

"I wouldn't say that as much as maybe our pitch selection is better," Lowe said. "A lot of teams have great slappers. I know UCLA has great slappers. There are a lot of teams throughout the country -- Tennessee, they have great average hitters. I just think it's basically the mechanics and making yourself disciplined at the plate."

Lowe is the perfect model of Arizona's aggressive offense. She has plenty of power -- slugging .564 this season -- but has spent the postseason laying down bunts and slapping out infield hits.

It's almost as though the Arizona offense doesn't want to let the defense off the hook by picking up bases in bunches, instead preferring to let opposing infielders twist in the wind as bouncer after chopper after bunt threatens to undo a season's worth of work.

Opposing sluggers have kept many a pitcher up at night; Arizona's Lowe and Champion may be among the first players to interrupt slumber with their ability to square around to bunt.

"First of all, we have to go out and recruit the Caitlin Lowes and the Autumn Champions," Candrea said. "That makes a huge difference. But Larry has done a really nice job of working with the short game. The big thing we've tried to do is trying to add, trying to increase the repertoire that they do. I think that's the one thing that kind of separates our short-game players ... it's more than just a slap and more than just a drag. There is a lot of deception that occurs. And obviously if you can recruit kids with great speed and great hand-eye coordination, then you have a chance of doing it."

It's a system that requires consistently outstanding execution to work, but in Acton, Lowe and Champion, the Wildcats have three different classes of players (from sophomore to senior, in order) willing to put in the time.

"I have no doubt we do more work," Acton said of the emphasis on the short game. "Because we hit off our pitchers; when we do our bunt defense it's us three hitting, running the bases. So we get a lot of work in through the short game. Plus we work on it individually; we're just always finding ways to get better, getting our high bounce or whatever it may be."

Northwestern has just 24 hours to find a way to solve something Candrea, and for much of that time Ray, have been working on since 1986. It's not impossible given what the Wildcats from the Big Ten have already accomplished, but they had better hurry.

Then again, nobody does quicker better than Arizona.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.