Softball preseason No. 6: Arizona State

January, 29, 2009
01/29/09
12:14
PM ET

If it's Thursday, it must be No. 6 on the countdown of the softball preseason top 20. Little-known fact: Six is the number of studio albums by Death Cab for Cutie, if you don't count the 2002 release of "You Can Play These Songs With Chords," which was really a re-release -- updated with new songs -- of singer Ben Gibbard's original solo effort before the band formed in 1997.

You'd be surprised how difficult it is to come up with 20 random facts about numbers.

No. 6 Arizona State

Last season: 66-5 (Won the program's first softball national championship)

Preseason talking point: The Sun Devils fumed last season when, after winning the Pac-10 title outright, they still found themselves seeded sixth overall in the NCAA tournament. So perhaps the fact that the defending champions open this season somewhere other than atop either major poll (or these ramblings) will fuel a new fire.

But even without the assistance of a few hours spent baking in the desert sun, it's tough to look at the team that is on hand this season and not start seeing things that are not there.

For one, there's no more Katie Burkhart staring down batters from the circle. The good news is one need look back no further than two years ago in Tucson to show that kind of loss is survivable. After losing Alicia Hollowell from a title team, Arizona turned to a pitcher with a good strikeout rate and a susceptibility to both walks and home runs. Time will tell if Arizona State junior Megan Elliott can duplicate Taryne Mowatt's successful transition.

Losing an ace would be tough enough to overcome, but that wasn't the only departure for the Sun Devils. Kristen Miller, Mindy Cowles, Jackie Vasquez and Rhiannon Baca combined for 166 runs and 164 RBIs as seniors last season. As much talent remains in the form of returning players ready for more time and another deep freshman class -- and there's a lot of talent in both -- that's a huge chunk of production that must be replaced just to get back to a break-even point (even if break-even in this case was a national title).

Cue the soaring music for the feel-good ending. The flip side to all of this is that Arizona State still has Kaitlin Cochran, the best hitter in the world who wasn't in Beijing last summer for the Olympics, and Krista Donnenwirth, who emerged as the Gehrig to Cochran's Ruth. (Sorry, for a Ted Williams aficionado like Cochran, I should have gone Red Sox for her partner … but Bobby Doerr doesn't have quite the same ring.)

Using runs created, only one pair of returning players from a national contender fared better on a per-game basis last season than Cochran and Donnenwirth.

Alabama
Charlotte Morgan, 1.25 runs created per game
Brittany Rogers, 1.12 runs created per game
Total: 2.37 runs created per game

Arizona State
Kaitlin Cochran, 1.43 runs created per game
Krista Donnenwirth, 0.86 runs created per game
Total: 2.29 runs created per game

Oklahoma
Amber Flores, 1.16 runs created per game
Samantha Ricketts, 0.98 runs created per game
Total: 2.14 runs created per game

BYU
Angeline Quiocho, 1.08 runs created per game
Kristin Delahoussaye, 1.03 runs created per game
Total: 2.11 runs created per game

Houston
Laurie Wagner, 1.14 runs created per game
Jessica Valis, 0.95 runs created per game
Total: 2.09 runs created per game

Arizona
Jenae Leles, 1.12 runs created per game
Brittany Lastrapes, 0.92 runs created per game
Total: 2.04 runs created per game

Florida
Ali Gardiner, 1.00 runs created per game
Francesca Enea, 0.82 runs created per game
Total: 1.82 runs created per game

There's a lot to be sorted out in Tempe if the Sun Devils want to defend their title. But sorting it out around two of the best cornerstones in the game isn't the worst scenario.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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