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Thursday, February 10, 2011
Talented Sun Devils add pitching phenom


Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2011 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his top 20. Check back daily for updates.

No. 2 Arizona State
Last season: 44-17, lost in Gainesville super regional
Who returns: Maybe Washington State and USC don't field softball teams, but there are generally players enough for a couple of extra squads in Tempe by the time Arizona State coach Clint Myers gets done filling out a roster. This season is no exception, with 17 players who saw action last season listed on the preseason roster. Most notably, the returnees include shortstop Katelyn Boyd (1.296 OPS, 27 stolen bases) and outfielder Lesley Rogers (1.059 OPS, 23 stolen bases). Those two are the centerpieces of a lineup that is a model of plate discipline, as the Sun Devils totaled 271 walks and a .425 on-base percentage against just 235 strikeouts in 2010.

Nobody fiddles with lineups like Myers, but Annie Lockwood (.987 OPS), Krista Donnenwirth (.867 OPS) and Kaylyn Castillo (.843 OPS) return after starting at least 50 games, while Mandy Urfer is back after posting a 1.144 OPS in 38 games. In the circle, Hillary Bach held up well against the expectations she set for herself with some good World Series outings as a freshman. Bach cut her ERA and home run rate last season.

Who departs: Caylyn Carlson (1.081 OPS) was a big ingredient in the glue binding the offense together, even as her back kept her at less than full strength. Katie Crabb and Ashley Muenz also take a lot of postseason experience with them.

Who arrives: One freshman stands above the rest, literally and figuratively in the case of 6-foot-1 pitcher Dallas Escobedo, but more on her in a minute. With injuries slowing Sam Parlich and Michelle Nulliner in preseason, either or both of Bailey Wigness and Breanna Kaye could find early opportunities at second base. The same goes for Alix Johnson and Mary Spiel in the outfield, with Myers suggesting Rogers is also less than 100 percent to open play.

Preseason question: Why is Arizona State No. 2?
It is literally impossible, temporally or topographically, to travel a shorter distance from Tempe in the spring of 2011 in search of evidence as to why the Sun Devils have at least the potential to go from a team that exited the postseason stage overmatched and undermanned last spring to a team still playing softball on Monday and Tuesday at the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City this June.

All that's required, even if Arizona State fans are loathe to do it in any situation, is a glance down the road to Tucson.

Not much grows easily in the desert, so there's no guarantee of success in planting a unique freshman pitching talent in a lineup that can score runs in bunches. But what worked for Arizona last spring with Kenzie Fowler could work equally well for Arizona State and Dallas Escobedo.

"It's difficult to project because you just don't know how the youngsters are going to perform; we do play in the toughest conference in the country in the Pac-10," Myers said. "But from all indications, it's going to be a pretty good team.

"If the coaching doesn't screw it up, we should be able to win a few games."

Arizona State won a few games last season, notably four of the six it played against Arizona and UCLA, the two teams that ended the season playing for the title. It also lost some games that raised eyebrows when the scores were posted, including being swept at home by California, and outscored 22-4, and losing two of three games at Oregon State. Rather than a team that was consistently middle of the pack, Arizona State was inconsistently bad and sporadically terrific.

Almost all of a lineup that ranked No. 16 in the nation in slugging percentage and No. 12 in scoring returns, and it could be even more potent this time around. Beyond the mere athletic maturation inherent in a college career, Boyd is healthy after playing the final stretch of last season with a broken hand. Regardless of how much she brought on herself, Donnenwirth is a year removed from the turmoil of a suspension for off-field actions and is still the player who starred in the 2009 World Series.

Last year's roster included a lot of returning players filling significant roles for the first time. Most of those same players are back again, only now with experience and 150-plus at-bats under their belts.

And, of course, there is Escobedo, a pitching prize people have been waiting at least four years to watch in a college uniform.

"She's a big girl; she's 6'2," Myers said, adding an inch to her program height. "And surprising for her size, she's got pretty good feet as far as the defensive side and good reactions. She's a very good defensive, fielding pitcher. … She can go up, down, in, out, she's got a changeup now. So hitters are going to have to be on their toes, considering they're not going to be able to really look for one pitch. And everybody knows she throws hard."

With Bach around, Arizona State has a luxury Arizona didn't have with Fowler last season. Myers can bring the freshman along at her own pace. By the time the postseason rolls around, that may give the Sun Devils the equally luxurious option of having a No. 2 pitcher in Bach with 56 career wins and plenty of experience on the sport's biggest stage.