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ASU softball ready for tough challenge at Oregon

(Photo:ASU Athletics)

Only six games remain in the regular season for the Arizona State Sun Devils, and all that’s at stake is a Pac-12 championship and a potential No. 1 ranking.

The third-ranked Sun Devils (42-7, 13-4 Pac-12) will travel to Eugene to take on the No. 1 Oregon Ducks (44-5, 17-1 Pac-12) this weekend, before finishing the season at home against the No. 2 UCLA Bruins (22-2, 15-3, Pac-12).

After getting off to a 1-2 start in conference, the Sun Devils have been hot, winning 12 of their last 14 games in conference and 15 of their last 17 overall. Despite averaging over six runs per game in that span, Sun Devil head coach Craig Nicholson admitted after Tuesday’s practice that he feels the Sun Devils can be inconsistent at the plate.

Nicholson said there are times the Sun Devil hitters are patient and stick to their plan, but other times they impatiently swing at pitchers’ pitches and get themselves out. This could create problems for the Sun Devils as they go against Ducks pitchers Cheridan Hawkins and Karissa Hovinga, who have posted a 1.35 ERA and 2.02 ERA respectively.

“You got to make sure you take advantage of all 21 outs,” Nicholson said. “We didn’t do a great job of that in the second and third games this past weekend.”

Nicholson was referring to the Sun Devils’ recent sweep of Southern Mississippi. After scoring eight runs on nine hits in game one, the Sun Devils scored 11 runs on 15 hits over the next two games but struggled at times at the plate and failed to capitalize on several opportunities.

“We got to make sure we make every at-bat count,” Nicholson said. “You’re not going to get a hit every at-bat or anything like that. We got to make sure we’re having quality at-bats, and we’re really getting good pitches to hit and giving ourselves the best possible chance for success in the box.”

One player who had a good weekend against the Golden Eagles was Haley Steele who finished 5-for-8 with two home runs and five RBI. The junior third basemen said she expects to see less speed from Oregon’s pitchers and more spin, making, “staying through the ball,” very important.

“We have to be disciplined and stick to our plan and kind of execute what we’re trying to do,” Steele said.

Steele said that playing Southern Miss helped her reset after a tough Washington series and hopes the rest of the team benefitted as well as they get ready for their remaining Pac-12 games.

Two players that seemed to benefit greatly from the Souther Miss series were starting pitchers Mackenzie Popescue and Dallas Escobedo, who switched roles for the weekend. Popescue got some extra work with two starts, in which she pitched 12 innings and allowed only three hits, and Escobedo got some extra rest as she only pitched in one game. Neither pitcher allowed a run in the three-game sweep.

Both pitchers will need to be on top of their game as they take on the Ducks who are averaging 6.9 runs per game. Despite the Ducks’ offensive firepower, Nicholson and Popescue are certain the Sun Devils pitching will be up to the challenge.

“I think if I throw the way that I do, and I keep it low and I mix up the speeds they’ll put it in play but they’re not going to hit it,” Popescue said, confidently .

Pitching for the Sun Devils may be fine against Oregon, the question is, as Nicholson mentioned earlier, which offense will show up? We’ll just have to wait to find out.

First pitch between the No. 3 Sun Devils and No. 1 Ducks is scheduled for 5 p.m. Friday at Howe Field in Eugene.

You can reach Matt Harden on Twitter @MattHarden_

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