No. 1 ASU softball struggling in early Pac-10 play

It looks like this weekend’s series with UCLA may determine just how far the ASU softball team falls from its No. 1 national ranking.

The Sun Devils are ranked No. 1 in the ESPN/USA Softball and USA Today/NFCA Coaches polls, and No. 9  on the NCAA RPI chart.  But that likely will change with next week’s poll results, as UCLA beat them yesterday.

The No. 9 Bruins won the opener of the three-game series, 2-1, last night at Farrington Stadium in Tempe.  UCLA is ranked No. 9 in the USA Today poll, No. 11 by ESPN.

What’s worse, it is the second consecutive loss for the Sun Devils, the first time that’s happened all season.  They lost to Oregon on Sunday in the final game of that series in Eugene.

ASU has been lighting up the college softball world – until it hit Pac-10 play.  The Devils sport a 37-5 record, but three of those five losses have come in conference play.

The third was to California, another one-run loss.  And the three-run defeat at the hands of UCLA, the defending national champions, was the result of a single pitch.

In yesterday’s game, ASU’s freshman pitching phenom, Dallas Escobedo, loaded the bases in the first inning with a couple of walks and a single.  And then Kellie Fox, a Bruin freshman, hit a 3-2 pitch over the right-center fence to essentially end the game early.

Kaylyn Castillo, the senior catcher from California, hit a solo homer in the seventh inning for ASU, but it was too little, too late.

In addition to any damage the loss did to ASU’s national ranking, it was also a disappointing home loss because it ended a 25-game winning streak at Farrington.

It also put another ding in the armour of Escobedo, who has been having her way with hitters.  The former St. Mary’s High School (Phoenix) standout and Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year last season came into conference play with just one miscue, a 1-0 loss to then-No. 6 Michigan in mid-March.  But a 2-3 loss to California less than two weeks ago, combined with yesterday’s loss, drops Escobedo’s season mark to 18-3.

ASU hasn’t been able to sweep a conference series yet, losing at least one game each time, leading to an uninspiring 4-3 record.

This time, just winning the series against the Bruins is going to take some real effort.  The job begins at 7 o’clock tonight.

*Update: MacKenzie Popescue and Dallas Escobedo combined to pitch the Devils to wins in both final games, winning the series from UCLA.  Both threw complete game shutouts, Popescue winning Saturday, 2-0, and Escobedo wrapping up the series Sunday with a 5-0 win.  Mandy Urpher powered the finale win with two home runs.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)