Red-hot UA softball overtaking ASU in national rankings

<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons above -->
                <div>
                    <a class="addthis_button" href="//addthis.com/bookmark.php?v=300" addthis:url='http://phxfan.com/2014/03/red-hot-ua-softball-overtaking-asu-national-rankings/' addthis:title='Red-hot UA softball overtaking ASU in national rankings'>
                        <img src="//cache.addthis.com/cachefly/static/btn/v2/lg-share-en.gif" width="125" height="16" alt="Bookmark and Share" style="border:0"/>
                    </a>
                </div>  It’s still early in the college softball season, but already the Arizona State Sun Devils are beginning to look over their shoulder.  The Sun Devils’ hated rival to the south is […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
                <div>
                    <a class="addthis_button" href="//addthis.com/bookmark.php?v=300" addthis:url='http://phxfan.com/2014/03/red-hot-ua-softball-overtaking-asu-national-rankings/' addthis:title='Red-hot UA softball overtaking ASU in national rankings'>
                        <img src="//cache.addthis.com/cachefly/static/btn/v2/lg-share-en.gif" width="125" height="16" alt="Bookmark and Share" style="border:0"/>
                    </a>
                </div>

 

It’s still early in the college softball season, but already the Arizona State Sun Devils are beginning to look over their shoulder.  The Sun Devils’ hated rival to the south is beginning to gain ground on them.

And the Wildcats are coming hard.

The University of Arizona run-ruled Ball State in both games of yesterday’s doubleheader in Tucson, and set a program record in the process.  The five-inning wins made it eight straight games that the red-hot Wildcats have mercy-ruled the opposition, breaking the school record of seven straight.  They have won nine of their last 10 games by mercy rule and and outscored their opponents 108-10 during that stretch.

Arizona State was blanked by Ball State on Sunday, losing 3-0 in Tempe.  But yesterday Arizona outscored the Cardinals 28-5 in the 10 total innings that were played at Hillenbrand Stadium to secure their position atop the Pac-12 standings  The 28 runs were the most scored by a UofA squad in a single doubleheader since 2009.

Arizona jumped all over Ball State early in both games, sending 11 players to the plate in the first inning of the opener and scoring seven runs, and then went up 4-0 in the first inning of the nightcap.

Kelsey Rodriguez, a senior from Seton Catholic in Phoenix, went 3-for-3 in the 16-2 victory in the first game, contributing five RBIs as well.  And three home runs and seven RBIs by junior catcher Chelsea Goodacre fueled the 12-3 win in the second game.

The six team home runs in the doubleheader makes it 34 on the year, most in the conference so far this season.

Arizona (20-1), which was un-ranked in the pre-season polls, has been moving up the national ladder as the Sun Devils (21-3) are dropping after losing weekend games to Ball State and Minnesota as part of the Louisville Slugger Invitational hosted by the Sun Devils.  The Wildcats are just one spot behind ASU in the ESPN/USA Softball polls, with the Devils at No. 7 and Cats at No. 8.  And in the USA Today/NFCA coaches poll, the Wildcats have actually moved ahead of ASU, with Arizona checking in this week at No. 7 and ASU at No. 10.

With perhaps the best pitching tandem in the country in Dallas Escobedo and Mackenzie Popescue, both seniors, Arizona State has been considered by some analysts as a favorite to play for this year’s national title – despite the fact that the program is operating under a new head coach.

The pair of right-handers are both local standouts. Escobedo, who pitched every post-season game as a freshman and took the Devils to the 2011 national title, is from St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix, and Popescue played at Scottsdale’s Chaparral High.

The talent is deep on a team that last year set a school record by starting the season with 21 wins and earned a berth in the Women’s College World Series.

But Arizona has its pitching ace back on the mound this season, as Kenzie Fowler returned to active duty following a 2013 redshirt season required to recover from back surgery.  And she is part of a solid – and deep -pitching staff that includes seniors Shelby Babcock and Estela Pinon, and sophomore Nancy Bowling.

Babcock and Fowler formed a fearsome twosome early in their careers when Fowler led Arizona into the national title game against UCLA  back in 2010.  Pinon transferred in from Prescott’s Yavapai College in 2012 to help compensate for the loss of Fowler last year, while Bowling is enjoying a break-out year and getting lots of time on the rubber.

It was apparent from the success at the Fall Invitational in October that the Wildcats had something good going for them this year.  They outscored their opponents in the five-team field by a combined score of 63-6 and used the mercy rule to win three of their games.

But that was an early tune-up against programs from smaller schools, so the results were somewhat expected and not necessarily a true predictor of regular-season success.

However, Arizona has lost just one game since then, a 2-0 loss to the current No. 17 team in the country, University of Missouri.

The Cats have definitely built some momentum – and team confidence – as they move into conference play, which is little more than a week away.  And they won’t be able to sneak up on any of the other teams on their Pac-12 schedule.

They’re on everyone’s radar right now.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)