ASU softball searching for a 1-2 punch in the circle

Last season, Trisha Ford got blindsided by a new NCAA transfer rule that likely cost her team an appearance at the Women’s College World Series.

The Arizona State head softball coach, getting ready to begin her fourth season at the helm, had a fearsome twosome in the circle during the 2018 season. Breanna Macha and Giselle Juarez led the Sun Devils into the WCWS that year. They were the aces on a four-player pitching staff that posted a team ERA of 1.56, the lowest of any ASU team in a decade.

But Macha graduated after that season and Juarez left the program just days after a new transfer rule went into effect in October of 2018 that eliminated the requirement that a player sit out a season following a transfer. So last season, instead of working in the circle for the Devils, Juarez led Oklahoma to a 52-3 record and a berth in the WCWS.

Without her, ASU finished the 2019 season 35-20 and couldn’t get out of the regionals.

Unfortunately, Ford hasn’t found another Giselle Juarez to lead her pitching staff this season — although she will benefit from the new transfer rule instead of being hurt by it. Madison Preston, a junior who spent the last two seasons at Alabama, should provide some depth for ASU this season; she made seven relief appearances last year for the Tide.

But there are three candidates to fill that role of a one-two punch in the circle, something every collegiate team has to have if it expects to go deep into the postseason. It will likely boil down to Cielo Meza, Abby Anderson, or Mailey McLemore.

Whether they can develop into the effective force that Macha and Juarez once provided the Devils is a question looming large as the season gets ready to roll out with the Kajikawa Classic, hosted by ASU this weekend.

Anderson, a sophomore from nearby Hamilton High School (Chandler), is the returning pitcher with the most on-staff experience. She made 15 starts last season, went the distance in six games, and posted 10 wins. However, her ERA was a lackluster 4.14.

McLemore, too, has a season of college experience under her belt — but it was spent at Foothill Community College in California. She’s been flying under the radar since she was a late addition to the ASU roster, joining the program in late December and was announced as a “utility player” rather than a pitcher. She still listed on the roster as a utility player.

That’s probably because she will spend some of her time in the infield and be called upon to bolster the Sun Devil offense. She led the California Community College Athletic Association in batting average (.570), home runs (17), and RBIs (76). Her 1.163 slugging average was off the charts.

But she was even more important to her Foothill team in the circle. She was the Owls’ ace for the season, a workhorse who appeared in 40 games and threw 195.1 of the team’s total 250 innings. At one point in the season, during a six-game stretch, she strung together 28 consecutive scoreless innings.

After Ford’s staff gets through with coaching her up to the Pac 12 level, she could have a break-out season in the circle.

Redshirt junior Cielo Meza rounds out the trio. Last season was her first at ASU, when she pitched a team-leading 98 innings and finished with a 7-3 record. But if she returns to the form she exhibited during her first two years at Long Beach State, she could be a force to reckon with this season.

As a freshman, she posted a 1.26 ERA to rank 20th in the nation in that category, and was named the Big West Conference Freshman Pitcher of the Year. She ran up a 22-4 overall record as a sophomore, led the conference with a 1.48 ERA and 217 strikeouts, and was named the Big West Pitcher of the Year.

A couple of freshmen, both local recruits, round out the pitching staff.

Morgan Leinstock capped a four-year varsity career at Scottsdale’s Horizon High School with a 1.51 career ERA and a No. 25 ranking among prep players in the state. Lindsay Lopez posted a 51-19 pitching record at Poston Butte High School in Florence, combining a 1.07 ERA with a .513 career batting average. She was the 2018 Pinal Central Player of the Year.

ASU, which was picked in the Pac-12 preseason poll to finish fourth, has pitching depth this season. But will they find that effective one-two punch they will need for any success in the postseason?

By the end of the day Monday, we should be closer to answering that question.

The Devils will play six games over four days in this weekend’s Kajikawa Classic, including match-ups with No. 12 Tennessee and No. 17 Northwestern.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)