Talk about peaking at the right time. With a half dozen games left on the regular schedule, Arizona’s Pac-12 softball teams are bringing the wood and throwing fire.
Arizona State (42-7, 13-4)), which is ranked No. 9 nationally in the NCAA standings, has lost just once in its last 11 outings, going back to the first game this month, grinding out the wins behind one of the nation’s most potent pitching tandems. And University of Arizona (39-9, 12-6) has won 11 of its last 12 and is ranked No. 10 in the NCAA standings. (ASU is ranked No. 5 in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll and No. 4 by ESPN/USA Softball).
ASU’s senior pitching duo, both local athletes, is red hot as each begins wrapping up her final college season. Dallas Escobedo, the big flame-thrower from St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix, struck out 16 batters in the Sun Devils’ 6-0 win over Southern Miss during a three-game sweep of the Golden Eagles over the weekend. And just four weeks earlier, she fanned 16 against rival Arizona in a series that ASU won, 2-1.
The 6’0″ right hander has been the program ace since her freshman year – the year she pitched the Devils to the national title. She currently ranks second in ASU history in both wins (105) and strikeouts (1,091) and is just the 14th college softball player all-time to record 1,000 or more strikeouts.
And the other half of ASU’s two-headed mound monster, Mackenzie Popescue, has lost just one game all season. Popescue, from Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, is 20-1 and Escobedo is 20-6. Popescue, who pitched a no-hitter in the series opener with Southern Miss, gives ASU one of the most lethal 1-2 punches in the college game.
But down in Tucson, the Wildcats are winning with power at the plate. The Cats just wrapped up their third consecutive Pac-12 home sweep by beating Utah – and set a school record during the three-game series by parking eight home runs in a single game.
Their freshman third baseman, Katiyana Mauga, tied another school record by hitting three home runs in the same Saturday night game. Only two players in NCAA history have hit more than three homers in one game.
Believe it or not, Arizona had three more home runs than Utah had hits in that game.
And in the Sunday series finale, an 8-3 win, the Cats knocked another four out of the park to bring their week’s total for five games to 22 home runs. Chelsea Goodacre, the 5’4″ junior catcher from California, contributed one of those homers on Sunday to bring her season total to 20.
Arizona now has 92 home runs on the season to lead the nation in that category.
They also have one of the deepest pitching staffs in the country, led by seniors Kenzie Fowler and Shelby Babcock, who have been the mainstay on the mound for the Cats throughout their four years at Arizona. Fowler, from nearby Canyon del Oro High School, pitched the Cats to the national title game against UCLA in her freshman year. She’s coming off a redshirt season that was used to enable to her to fully recover from back surgery.
When they play at home, the Cats are lock-down tough to beat. They haven’t lost a home game all season and their 27-0 record at Hillenbrand Stadium is the best in the nation and the fifth longest home winning streak in program history. Half of their next six games are at home, but they’re the final games of the regular season and should give them some momentum going into the post-season. ASU has a similar situation.
All of the games left for the two teams are conference contests. ASU plays three games with Oregon and three with UCLA; Arizona plays similar series with Washington and Oregon – so there’s room for movement on the Pac-12 ladder. The Sun Devils are currently in third place, with Arizona right on their heels in fourth.
This is turning into a big year for college softball fans in Arizona. It’s not too much of a stretch to think about both of the state’s Pac-12 teams playing in the Women’s College World Series next month.
They both look like they’re locked and loaded and ready to get on the road through the regionals, and then on to Oklahoma City.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)