ASU drops Sooners, 3-1, on march to nat’l softball title

If Oklahoma hadn’t made a couple of defensive miscues in the fourth inning, Katelyn Boyd‘s solo home run in the fifth would have made her the hero of Arizona State’s opening game of the Women’s College World Series.

Instead, her 18th round trip of the season, over the left field fence at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, served as an insurance run on a 2-0 ASU lead that the Sun Devils didn’t need for the win.

The Sooners’ pitching ace, Keilani Ricketts walked one batter and then hit another, to put two runners on base in the bottom half of the fourth.  Mandy Urfer‘s single up the middle brought both home and ASU drew first blood in yesterday’s game, going on to a 3-1 victory.

The No. 1-ranked Sun Devils scattered six hits in taking down the Big 12 power that had knocked the University of Arizona squad out of post-season contention, sweeping the Wildcats in two straight to win the Tucson Super Regional and advance to the WCWS.

Last week in Tucson, it was Ricketts vs. Kenzie Fowler in what should have been a drama-filled pitching duel.  However, that match-up didn’t live up to expectations.  Ricketts struck out 20 in the two games and the No. 9 Sooners outscored the Cats 11-2.

But Dallas Escobedo, the freshman pitching phenom from St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix, didn’t let ASU fans down when faced with Oklahoma’s bats.  She boosted her already-impressive record to 33-3 by holding the Sooners to one unearned run on five hits and two walks.  She struck out six in a complete game before a standing-room-only crowd.

Ricketts, 29-14, allowed three unearned runs on six hits and three walks, striking out four – which puts the 6’2″ lefty just 12 strikeouts short of the Oklahoma career record.  Getting past Ricketts has been no easy task for any team this season.

But the Sun Devils aren’t just any team.  They have run their season record to 56-6 and have a combination of power and pitching that is probably better than any other team in the country.

In addition to Escobedo, ASU’s pitching staff includes a seasoned veteran in junior Hillary Bach (10-0), who was on the mound when ASU made its last run through the WCWS gauntlet in 2009.  Add to that the dependable redshirt freshman Mackenzie Popescue (13-3), and you have the deep talent necessary to reach the final game.

And that helps explain why ASU, which has won 18 of its last 19 games, received the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the program’s storied history.

But the road to the national title doesn’t get any easier.  Tonight, the Sun Devils square off against No. 4 Florida (53-10), which beat No. 5 Missouri in the opening game, 6-2.

The Gators are similar to ASU in a number of ways.  Their team batting average is .326 and ASU is hitting at a .342 pace.   Both teams average a little more than one home run per outing.

So, once again, it will be the pitching that likely determines which team moves on in the quest for the 2011 national title.

And that’s fine with ASU.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)