Dallas Escobedo is a tough act to follow. She was a local hero, a highly-recruited softball pitcher that led St. Mary’s High School to four consecutive state championships and set innumerable records in the process, and then led Arizona State to a national title as a freshman.
Another freshman found out this weekend just how difficult it is to re-create that kind of success, as Breanna Macha tried to pitch the Sun Devils past the fifth-seeded LSU Tigers in the Baton Rouge Regional. She beat the Tigers in their first meeting before LSU came back to win the next two, and the regional title.
The 5’6″ right-hander from Mesa’s Red Mountain High School, where she pitched the Mountain Lions to four state titles and was named the Gatorade Arizona Pitcher of the Year, carried the Sun Devils on her back – just as Escobedo had done on the way to the 2011 national crown. The 19-year-old power pitcher worked 28 of the 30 innings over three days, threw 385 pitches, and compiled a 1.75 ERA in the process.
She beat the Tigers in their first meeting and faced them again a third time after LSU came back to beat the Devils in a second game and forced the playoff for the regional title. That third game yesterday went into extra innings before LSU scored the winning run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning for the hard-earned 4-3 victory.
Over those three games, Macha held one of the best offensive teams in the country that was averaging almost seven runs a game to just six earned runs total.
In the regional opener, Macha beat Nebraska, another team averaging seven runs a game, with pinpoint control. She gave up no walks, scattered five hits, and struck out three in posting a complete game in her first college post-season appearance and beat the Cornhuskers, 5-2.
She was even more impressive in the next game against LSU, protecting a one-run lead ASU put up in the first inning by blanking the 16th-best hitting team in the country for seven innings to seal the 1-0 victory and a berth in the regional championship game. LSU won that second game, 5-0, but had to beat ASU once more for the regional crown and the right to move on to the Super Regional.
The Tigers jumped out to a 2-0 lead after the first inning and ASU tied it up in the third. But the Devil hitters had a chance in that inning to do even more damage when bases were loaded with one out. LSU’s freshman pitcher, Allie Walljasper, struck out the next two to stall the drive.
The score stayed tied at 2-2 through the next three innings, thanks to some big help from the defense. In the fifth, LSU had bases loaded and one out when ASU left fielder Elizabeth Caporuscio pulled down a fly ball for the second out and then made a perfectly-placed throw to home to put out the Tiger runner for the final out.
And then in the sixth, center fielder Jennifer Soria made a catch on the run up against the outfield wall to steal an extra-bases hit from the Tigers.
The Sun Devils looked like they might put this one away in the top of the seventh when Chelsea Gonzales reached first on an error by the LSU third baseman, and moved to second in scoring position on an Amber Freeman single. Gonzales advanced to third on a pitch into the dirt, and then scored on a fielder’s choice when Haley Steele grounded to short and the shortstop mistakenly made the throw to third instead of home for the attempted force.
But LSU wouldn’t roll over and tied it up again, 3-3, in their half of the inning to take the game into extra innings.
After a scoreless eighth, it looked like the Sun Devils would escape an LSU challenge in the bottom of the ninth. The Tigers had runners on first and second with just one out. The lead runner scored on the next at-bat, but was called back to second when the other runner was hit by the ball being played by the Devil second baseman.
However, the relief was short-lived. The next Tiger batter, Bianka Bell, smashed the ball through the middle of the Sun Devil defense to score the runner from second and wrap up the 4-3 win.
Macha, Freeman, and Steele were all named to the Baton Rouge All-Regional team.
Had No. 23-ranked ASU won their regional, it would have set up a meeting with rival University of Arizona, which won the Tucson Regional by beating Minnesota, 7-6, in the championship game last night. The Wildcats’ win was a role reversal of what happened to the Sun Devils. Their game also went into overtime, but the Cats pulled out the win in the bottom of the eighth inning on a Chelsea Suitos triple followed by a walk-off single by Kellie Fox.
The Wildcats will now take their shot at beating No. 8 LSU, which will host Arizona in the Super Regional.
ASU’s loss in Baton Rouge marks the second straight year that the Sun Devils, who finished the season 36-22, have failed to get out of the regionals. Last year they lost in two straight games to Michigan in the championship of the Tempe Regional. This is particularly unsettling for a fan base that is used to their tradition-rich program going deep into the post-season.
Head coach Craig Nicholson is just two years into his tenure. During the eight years that his predecessor, Clint Myers, ran the program the Sun Devils went to the Women’s College World Series seven times and won two national titles. Myers left to accept a similar position at Auburn.
Last year, ASU finished the regular season as the No. 4 team in the nation and posted an impressive 44-10-1 record. They were expected to make another trip to the World Series.
It didn’t go as planned. Last year was the first time in nine years that the Sun Devils failed to make it out of regional play. Now it’s two years in a row that Nicholson has failed to get his program into a Super Regional.
But Breanna Macha is off to a great start to her career at ASU. Her goal, she said before post-season play began, is to win a national championship before she leaves college.
She still has three more opportunities and, based on how she has started, could well achieve that lofty goal.
That would also go a long way to getting her head coach out of the dog house.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)