ASU softball wins Territorial Cup point, climbs nat’l rankings

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                </div>  The Arizona Wildcats took Sunday’s game with rival Arizona State into extra innings before pulling out a 6-5 win. But it wasn’t enough to keep ASU from earning a […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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The Arizona Wildcats took Sunday’s game with rival Arizona State into extra innings before pulling out a 6-5 win. But it wasn’t enough to keep ASU from earning a full point in the Territorial Cup race, since the Sun Devils had already pocketed wins in the first two games of the weekend series.

And it wasn’t enough to keep the Sun Devils from overtaking the Cats in the national rankings.

ASU (32-6) moved up to No. 6 in the ESPN/USA Softball poll and to No. 7 in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll, while Arizona (29-8) dropped to No. 10 in both rankings.

While Sunday’s victory allowed the Cats to save a little face, it was too little, too late.  ASU opened the three-game series with a 2-1 win in a pitcher’s duel between ASU’s senior hurler, Dallas Escobedo, and Arizona’s Estela Pinon, the senior transfer from Yavapai College in Prescott.  Escobedo threw 16 strikeouts, the most in any regulation game of her career, and Pinon allowed just one runner to reach second base the entire game – with one exception.

That one devastating exception was ASU’s junior catcher, Amber Freeman, who parked a two-run homer in the third inning to score Bailey Wigness, who had singled ahead of her, and give the Sun Devils the 2-0 cushion they needed for the win.  Arizona’s only run came in the top of the sixth, courtesy of Chelsea Goodacre‘s solo homer.

That pitching gem by Escobedo, the big right-hander from St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix who pitched the Sun Devils to the 2011 national title, ran her record to 14-4 on the year.  And the other half of ASU’s two-headed mound monster, senior Mackenzie Popescue, pitched the series clincher, running her season record to 16-1 with a 4-1 victory in front of a sell-out crowd Saturday at Farrington Stadium.

And both wins were against the top-ranked offense in the country.

Popescue, another local athlete, from Scottsdale’s Chaparral High School, allowed just one run in the first inning and then finished the complete game by tossing six scoreless innings, scattering eight hits along the way – but displaying accuracy that allowed zero walks.  “She was really attacking the hitters,” first-year head coach Craig Nicholson pointed out afterward, “changing speeds very well and hitting her spots.”

It took ASU awhile to get its offense on track in this one, as Arizona’s senior pitcher Kenzie Fowler (yet another local, from Canyon del Oro HS in Tucson) stranded 10 batters through the first four innings and the Cats held a 1-0 lead going into the bottom of the fifth.  But a combination of walked batters and a bases-clearing double by Wigness gave the Devils the lead for good.

Goodacre was involved again in Arizona’s lone score, this time singling to drive in lead-off hitter, Hallie Wilson.

And then Goodacre, the Cats’ 5’4″ junior catcher, contributed another home run in the series finale – her 15th of the year to lead the nation in that category – to help the visitors to the 6-5 win that took 10 innings to resolve. Extra-inning games have been good to the Cats this season; they’ve won all three they have encountered.

This game had to be the best of the three, from a fans’ standpoint.  The contest see-sawed back and forth, with three ties and five lead changes.

Arizona literally clawed its way back after falling behind by one run in the seventh inning.  The Cats were down to their last out with no runners on base when Wilson singled to left and Kelsey Rodriguez doubled her home to tie the game.

In the eighth inning, Mo Mercado smacked a two-run homer and the Arizona fans were ready to head for the parking lot.  But Alix Johnson evened it up again with her own 2-run blast and tied it at 5-5.

In the 10th, Arizona went up 6-5 when Mercado brought Kellie Fox home on a ground-out.  The bottom of that inning started with a base on balls issued by Pinon, and Fowler came into squash the ASU threat in her first save of the season.

Both teams take on California teams this weekend, with ASU going on the road to take on the Golden Bears in Berkeley and the Wildcats return home to Hillenbrand Stadium to host Stanford.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)