Line drive fells Fowler; may miss softball series with ASU

There’s never a good time for a sports injury.  But the timing of the fluke concussion to Arizona’s premier pitcher, Kenzie Fowler, couldn’t have been worse.

Not only was the Wildcats softball squad moving up in the national polls after taking the weekend series from No. 8 Washington, but they are scheduled to begin a three-games series Thursday with rival Arizona State in front of a sold-out home crowd at Hillenbrand Stadium.

The series will pit Arizona, now ranked No. 7, against top-ranked ASU.  Standing-room tickets will go on sale an hour before the first pitch – and there will be takers.

Arizona fans were looking forward to seeing the outstanding sophomore pitcher on the mound, giving the Cats a strong chance of challenging the No. 1 Sun Devils.  But a line drive off a teammate’s bat after three innings of Sunday’s 6-1 victory over the Huskies makes that appearance iffy at best.

Fowler, who is 21-6 on the season with a 1.69 ERA, had thrown the first three innings without giving up a hit, and was sitting in the dugout looking over the scouting reports as she prepared for the next inning’s hitters.  A hard line drive off Nicole Ryan’s bat somehow found its way through a line of standing players and over the top of the chain-link fence to nail Fowler on the right side of her forehead.

Now, it’s day-to-day for a team that has relied heavily on its star pitcher since she took over starting duties right after graduating from Canyon del Oro High School near Tucson.  In fact, the Cats only have two regular pitchers.  They’ve always been able to depend on Fowler being there to pull them through the tough games.

But now a young freshman may have to carry the load alone, without knowing just how long Fowler will be out of the lineup.  The injured pitcher was taken to University Medical Center after the game Sunday and diagnosed with a concussion.  There has been no decision on how soon she can return.

Shelby Babcock is likely up to the task.  She has pitched 114 1/3 innings so far and has posted a respectable 14-2 record, with a 3.43 ERA.

And she will have some back-up from senior left fielder Brittany Lastrapes and Baillie Kirker, the sophomore first baseman.  Both have been used before as ’emergency’ pitchers.

However, Babcock is not Fowler.  And fans want to see Fowler, the only Pac-10 pitcher included on this year’s top-25 finalists list for the national Player of the Year award.

Fowler led the Cats to the championship game of the Women’s College World Series last year, making the team an instant hit with fans – and filling the home stands with near record-breaking crowds.  They averaged 2,516 for home games, just shy of the national record.

This year, they are on track to break that record of 2,556, set by Fresno State in 1997.  Right now, they are averaging just a couple of dozen fans per game ahead of the Bulldogs’ record, and need to maintain that pace for the nine home games remaining on the schedule.

The Arizona faithful have consistently provided attendance numbers that rank among the best college softball programs in the country.  Hillenbrand has enjoyed the best attendance in the nation six times, including four of the past five seasons.

And the standing-room-only tickets for this weekend’s series with ASU will likely still be gobbled up, with or without Fowler being on the mound.

Fans still want to be there to watch their Cats,  ranked 12th in the nation in offense, and wait for the inevitable explosion from the team that leads the Pac-10 in home runs.

And be there to cheer on their senior catcher from Cactus High School in Glendale, Stacie Chambers, as she chases the national college record for career home runs.  Chambers has 83 round trips, just seven shy of the record.

But it certainly would help the Wildcat cause if No. 19 is in the circle, as usual.