By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor
It had been 105 days since Baylor and Arizona last played and in their matchup on Friday, it didn’t take long for No. 2 Arizona to remind No. 15 Baylor just how good it was.
The Wildcats jumped out early and then staged a seventh inning rally to earn a walk-off 3-2 win on freshman first baseman Jessie Harper’s single to take game one of the best of three series this weekend.
Facing a 1-0 series deficit doesn’t change the approach according to Baylor head coach Glenn Moore.
“We’re playing one game at a time was our philosophy, anyway,” Moore said. “We’ve been playing three-game series all year long, and we’ll continue to fight like we have in all those series. Arizona’s a great ball club, give them their respect.”
After throwing two no-hitters in last weekend’s Waco Regional, sophomore Gia Rodoni (17-3) took the loss for the Lady Bears, allowing one run on seven hits in the final 3 2/3 innings.
The Wildcats continually put pressure on Rodoni, reaching safely against her in every inning besides the third, but it wasn’t until the seventh that the Wildcats finally got the clutch hit they eagerly desired.
Left fielder Mandie Perez started the rally with an infield single to shortstop as the ball took a high hop that junior shortstop Caitlin Charlton had to wait back on before firing too late to first base. Senior third baseman Katiyana Maruga, who finished 3-3 with a home run and a double, was intentionally walked and
senior shortstop Mo Mercado then laced a single to left, loading the bases, paving the way for Harper’s heroics.
Despite being limited to three runs, the Wildcats were aggressive at the plate, finishing with 12 hits (8 more than Baylor allowed during its regional last weekend) and it started early against Baylor senior Kelsee Selman. Selman retired Arizona’s first batter of the game before running into the dynamic offensive combo of Mauga and Mercado.
Mauga roped a double to the gap in right center to get the offense going then Mercado hit a laser to center field that tipped off of junior center fielder Jessie Scroggins’ glove that went for a double to bring in the first run for the Wildcats.
Freshman catcher Dejah Mulipola started the second inning against Selman with a double off the wall in center field but Selman was able to work out of the jam to keep the score 1-0 but heading into the third inning, Mauga put her imprint on the game once again, this time hitting her 25th home run of the season to right center field, putting Arizona up 2-0.
With redshirt senior pitcher Danielle O’Toole cruising along in the circle for Arizona and Mercado seemingly gobbling up every single ball at shortstop, the fate of the game seemed sealed.
However, much like she did in last week’s regional against Kent State, sophomore outfielder Kyla Walker started the Baylor rally.
On the first pitch she saw in the sixth inning, Walker ripped a ball over the head of junior right fielder Ashleigh Hughes. Springing out of the box, Walker slid in feet first with her fifth triple of the season to give the Lady Bears new life.
After being caught off guard by O’Toole’s changeup in her first two at bats, senior second baseman Ari Hawkins sat back and waited on a 1-1 changeup that she drilled over the wall in left for her fifth home run of the season, tying the game at 2.
Baylor had a chance to keep the momentum going but O’Toole regained her composure, sending the Lady Bears down in order in the seventh and regaining it for the Wildcats.
O’Toole (30-4) earned the win for the Wildcats, bringing Arizona one step closer to a return to the Women’s College World Series, which would be their first appearance since 2011.
With her single in the first inning, Walker picked up hit number 82 of the season, breaking the program record for hits in a single season. She added number 83 with her triple in the sixth.
Freshman right fielder Maddison Kettler impressed for Baylor, legging out two infield singles against O’Toole.
Baylor (43-15) must win game two on Saturday to force a game three Sunday in order to extend its season.
Moore said he expects his team to come out with an extra sense or urgency on Saturday, as their season now hangs in the balance.
“We’ll come back and fight,” Moore said. “These are warriors I have right here, they’ve put up fights every time they go out there. We’ve seen some great pitching, we’ve seen some great lineups this year. So, I’ll expect them to come back and fight, and I know they will.”
Game two is set for 9 p.m. tonight and will air on ESPN.