Escobedo leads ASU vs. Florida for national softball title

Depending on how you want to look at it, the match-up with the Florida Gators in tonight’s series opener for the NCAA softball championship is either a bad omen for Arizona State – or an opportunity to settle a score.

The Sun Devils have to be thinking about last year as they prepare for the first game in the best-of-three series for the 2011 national title.  It was just a year ago that the Gators kept ASU from reaching the Women’s College World Series (WCWS), beating them in two games straight in the Super Regional in Gainesville, Fla.

This time, they’re not playing in Florida’s backyard.  They’re on neutral turf at Oklahoma City and the Sun Devils enter the series as the No. 1-ranked team in all the land.

(*Update: ASU jumped on Florida early in the first game, taking a 11-0 lead by the fourth inning and coasting to a 14-4 victory.  The Sun Devil hitters piled up five home runs. Together, the teams had 7 combined homers, setting a WCWS record.  Second game tonight.)

And there’s one big difference from a year ago.  This is the beginning of the Dallas Escobedo era at Arizona State.

The dominant freshman hurler has lost just three games all season.  And the Sun Devils (58-6) intend to ride her strong, young arm the rest of the way.

Hillary Bach and Megan Elliott carried the majority of the pitching load last year, with then-freshman Sam Parlich pitching in from time to time.  Bach was just a sophomore, but was on the mound for 33 games as the Devils compiled a 44-17 record and a fifth consecutive Super Regional appearance.  Elliot, the lone senior on the staff, contributed with a 12-3 record.

Bach and Parlich shared pitching duties in the Gators’ 8-0 victory in that first game last year, and Elliott closed out her college career on the mound for the 5-2 loss in the season finale.

Bach is still pitching, but the load is off her shoulders.  Escobedo, the 2010 Gatorade Arizona Pitcher of the Year at St. Mary’s High School who set a national record for strikeouts, has logged the lion’s share of innings.  She has run her rookie record to 35-3 and was just named a first team All-American.

The big right-hander sports a 1.37 ERA, the 20th-best in the nation, and had posted 286 strikeouts coming into the WCWS.

But there are other factors working in ASU’s favor as they prepare for No. 4 Florida.

First, they’ve already beat them once on the road to the finals.  Escobedo was on the mound Friday for that 6-5 victory, throwing a career-high 174 pitches to keep the Sun Devils perfect in the post-season with a 7-0 mark.

But the Sun Devils didn’t tie up the win until the final inning.  Home runs by Mandy Urfer in the third inning, and Annie Lockwood in the fourth, kept the Devils in it, but it was a couple of walks and singles by Kaylyn Castillo and Lockwood that brought in the winning run in the seventh.

Secondly, that win over Florida forced the Gators to win both ends of a double-header yesterday against Alabama, in order to get a shot at the championship.

So the fresher team today will be ASU, which used another  home run by Urpher to take a 2-0 lead early in their game yesterday against Baylor and then coasted to a 4-0 victory.

Escobedo struck out eight for the complete-game shutout, leading the Sun Devils to just the second WCWS championship appearance in program history.

But if the youngster from St. Mary’s continues to mature and stays healthy, it likely won’t be the last.