Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza stepped up to the plate inside Easton Stadium in the top of the seventh with a chance to be the hero.
The redshirt junior outfielder was looking to do damage in a tie game with mighty UCLA, who had beat the visiting Wildcats in five-straight games dating back to 2017.
Palomino-Cardoza was waiting for a single mistake from UCLA’s world-class starting pitcher, Rachel Garcia, who entered the night with an unblemished 20-0 record in the pitcher’s circle.
Garcia, while intimidating, was far from perfect last Thursday, throwing a belt-high changeup that Palomino-Cardoza crushed over the robin’s egg blue center field wall, giving Arizona a 5-3 lead they’d never surrender.
Palomino-Cardoza described her final at-bat against Garcia in her postgame comments, taking everyone through what she saw in her final plate appearance.
“I’m just in there keeping it simple,” she said. “I felt my eyes were good all night, so just to see the ball down, and find a pitch to drive. And, I saw the 0-2 changeup and I just took a stab at it and put everything I had into it. I knew off the bat it felt sweet.”
The road to Palomino-Cardoza’s game-winning home run was long and twisty on a damp evening in northwest Los Angeles.
The Bruins (46-5, 20-4) struck first in the game’s opening inning, when Garcia hit an RBI single to give the Bruins a 1-0 edge.
UCLA was able to load the bases in the first off Arizona pitcher Taylor McQuillin with one out when a routine fly ball turned into an inning-ending double play.
The lead Bruin on the basepaths was ruled to have left third base early on the fly-out, which led to her run being disallowed and the inning coming to an abrupt end.
That bit of fortune would serve the Wildcats well in the long-run, as McQuillin would settle down and the Wildcats bats would wake up.
The opening salvo for Mike Candrea’s squad came in the top of the fourth, when senior Rylee Pierce laced a Garcia pitch over the right field wall to tie the game at 1.
The Bruins would regain the lead in their half of the fourth, after an RBI single by leadoff hitter Bubba Nickles and a solo homer by Briana Tautalafua to take a 3-1 lead.
The Wildcats struck back in a big way in the top of the fifth, however, when shortstop Jessie Harper crushed a pitch into the netting behind the left field fence for a game-tying, two-run home run.
Those episodes set the stage for Palomino-Cardoza’s at-bat to remember, giving the Wildcats (42-12, 20-4) their first win over the Bruins in nearly two years.
“We come here to get the sweep, knowing that doing so would get us a share of the conference title, but we knew we could do it,” Palomino-Cardoza said. “You know, we can sweep this team and we’re strong enough and we’re going to put up a fight. We won’t go down easy.”
Candrea’s postgame remarks summed up the assortment of emotions that swirled through the ballpark on Thursday night.
For the longtime Arizona coach, his team’s ability to finally thwart the Bruins, and to do so on UCLA’s home field, shows what this team can do.
Candrea touched on how badly the Wildcats needed last Thursday’s win, given how they were swept in Tucson by the Washington Huskies a week earlier.
“It was huge in a lot of ways… I think the big thing is how we played and how Taylor [McQuillin] pitched,” he said. “I kind of saw a different gear in her the last couple innings, and going in the postseason, we have to play like that that.”
Candrea’s mention of McQuillin was apt, given the senior’s strong showing in the series opener, with the southpaw taming a vicious Bruins lineup for much of the night.
McQuillin finished the night with eight hits, three earned runs, four walks and six strikeouts to her credit.
What the box score doesn’t convey, according to Candrea, is how hard the senior worked to stay one step ahead of the Bruins in the opener.
“I think that it’s been part of our process. I think we had a long discussion after last week, and the big thing is trying to embrace the pressure situations and being able to control yourself, and stay in the attack mode,” Candrea said. “I think she did all those things.”
The Wildcats split their final two games against the Bruins, falling to UCLA, 5-4 on Friday, before winning their regular season finale, 3-1.
Candrea’s team picked up its first series win over UCLA since the 2011 season and earned the sixth overall seed in the NCAA Softball Tournament, which kicks off on Friday, May 17.
The Wildcats will host fourth-seed Harvard in Friday’s opening round at 8:30 p.m., with the winner of that game playing either second-seed Auburn or third-seed Colorado State at 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 18.
The Wildcats would host the super-regional the following weekend if they advance past this weekend’s regional.
The Women’s College World Series, which is held annually in Oklahoma City, starts on Thursday, May 30.
Arizona has not made the WCWS since 2010. Their last national title came in 2007. The Wildcats earned their first top-eight seed since the 2017 tournament, when they lost to Baylor University in the Super-Regional round.