For the first time this season, the Arizona State softball team is playing with pressure.
Gone are the days in which the Sun Devils can coast by opponents and rest on their laurels.
This weekend, Coach Clint Myers’ squad hosts the No. 10 California Golden Bears in what figures to be the most intriguing home series of the season.
At 39-7, the Sun Devils appear to be in contention for another Women’s College World Series appearance. However, Arizona State received a brutal glimpse of reality last weekend against the Utah Utes.
Though the Sun Devils might look like a title favorite, the unranked Utes destroyed Arizona State’s confidence by taking two out of three in Salt Lake City. The series served as a wakeup call, as the Sun Devils needed a reminder that they are vulnerable on any given night.
That concept has never been more applicable as Dallas Escobedo and company prepare to host one of the nation’s top teams.
California represents a dangerous threat, by consistently shutting down an opposing offense on a routine basis.
Though the Bears have just three hitters with averages above the .300 mark, their rotation ranks among the best in the nation.
Jolene Henderson has started 33 of the Bears’ 44 games and has appeared in 40 games altogether this season. The veteran right-hander has been outstanding in the circle as her 1.21 earned run average and 29-8 record indicate.
This weekend, Henderson hopes to continue her success against one of the country’s most potent offenses.
Despite losing four of their last seven games, the Sun Devils have shown the capabilities of taking down another team’s ace with regularity. With that being said, the question looming over this series is quite simple: can Dallas Escobedo outduel Jolene Henderson?
At 22-4 overall, it’s hard to argue with Escobedo’s production. Her 2.14 earned run average is solid, especially considering the level of competition she’s faced in Pac-12 play this season.
However, even with all of Escobedo’s great numbers, it remains to be seen if she is among college softball’s elite.
Escobedo has surrendered 25 home runs in 176.1 innings this season, and her propensity for giving up the long ball has certainly raised questions about her effectiveness.
Escobedo guns for strikeouts, but too often, she leaves her rise ball up in the zone and hitters take advantage. Against the Bears, Escobedo won’t have the luxury of allowing many runs because Henderson can match her zero for zero.
While every Sun Devil who regularly starts in the field is hitting at least .308, the offense has actually struggled of late.
In the last seven games, Arizona State has failed to score more than seven runs. This is by far the longest stretch of the season in which the Sun Devils have failed to reach a double-digit run total, and a red-hot Bears team is probably not what the doctor ordered.
Over its last six games, the Cal pitching staff has not allowed more than two runs in any game.
When the Sun Devils and the Bears do battle this weekend, something has to give.
It’s hard to imagine three consecutive low-scoring games between such high-powered offenses, so only time will tell which starting pitcher cracks first.
Will Escobedo and the Sun Devil offense carry over struggles from the Utah series? Or can the task of defending home turf against one of the nation’s best teams fuel the Sun Devils to victory?
For Arizona State, there’s no time to waste. The Sun Devils must be aggressive, play a clean game of softball, and will themselves to victory to prove that they still belong in the title discussion.