ASU, UA softball drop in rankings after Kajikawa Classic

The Kajikawa Classic softball tournament at Arizona State opens the season and is a good way to get an early preview of Arizona’s Pac-12 teams.

It wasn’t ugly this year…but it couldn’t be called pretty, either.

Last year, the University of Arizona was ranked No. 2 in the nation and ASU entered the season at No. 13.  Each won five of the six games they played in the Kajikawa.

This year, ASU finished the three-day event with a 5-2 record and Arizona went 3-3.  And both teams dropped in the rankings as result.

No. 1 Arizona State fell to No. 5 and No. 8 Arizona dropped out of the top 10, settling in at No. 16.  Ouch!

The Wildcats looked good against middle-of-the-road teams, allowing a total of just two runs in wins against teams like Cal State Northridge, Syracuse, and McNeese State – but weren’t able to handle No. 17 Texas A&M, No. 20 Nebraska, and unranked Georgia Tech (now ranked No. 23).

ASU had an easier path, scoring 41 total runs and shutting out four of the five opponents it beat – but falling to No. 14 Tennessee (now No. 10) and McNeese State, which the Cats beat handily, 8-1.

Last year was the coming-out party for ASU’s freshman pitching phenom, Dallas Escobedo, who finished her rookie season 37-3 and pitched the Sun Devils to the national championship.  This year, the former Arizona Player of the Year at St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix recorded a 10-5 win against Northwestern, striking out 14, but suffered an uncharacteristic early loss when Tennessee beat her, 3-0.

But Hillary Bach, the 6’2″ senior workhorse from Oklahoma, posted three wins for the Devils.  Add in Mackenzie Popescue, a sophomore from Chaparral High in Scottsdale, and you have perhaps the most potent pitching staff in the country.  Popescue beat Western Michigan in six innings, but picked up the other loss in the tournament, to McNeese State.

The Wildcats don’t lack for pitching either, but rely heavily on the arm of Kenzie Fowler, the junior right-hander who was a two-time Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year at Canyon del Oro High School in Tucson.

Fowler went 38-9 as a freshman and took the Cats to the national championship game against UCLA, and then led the team into post-season play last year.  She was on the mound for every inning in the Regional and all but three in the Super Regional, where the Cats’ run was stopped by Oklahoma.

However, Fowler struggled in her one appearance over the weekend, going just six innings in an 11-10 loss to Nebraska.  She walked six and gave up nine runs in her first start of the season.

Shelby Babcock, a hard-throwing sophomore, took over in the Nebraska game and was credited with the loss.  She pitched five of the six games, losing three and winning two.

Arizona and Arizona State don’t meet in the Kajikawa.  That much-anticipated collision is saved for later in the season and will probably draw the usual standing-room-only crowds.

This year, they will meet March 23 in Tempe for a three-game weekend.  By that time, it will likely be a match-up between two Top 10 teams, as both are likely to begin moving back up the ladder.

As long as Fowler and Escobedo get back on top of their game, that is.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)