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Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Sweet victory for Sun Devils

By Pat Borzi

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Arizona State had its second Women's College World Series championship in four years in hand by the sixth inning Tuesday night, holding a six-run lead on a Florida team whose bats had gone strangely silent again. But Dallas Escobedo, the Sun Devils' confident and free-spirited freshman pitcher, had just issued her second walk of the inning to put runners on first and second, and coach Clint Myers walked ever so slowly to the mound.

Myers likes to describe himself as a growling taskmaster, tough to play for and quick to bark when he's mad. But there was no barking in this conversation. Instead, Myers said something to Escobedo that had nothing to do with softball, something that touched her heart.

"He told me to smile," Escobedo said. "He said that yesterday I didn't smile the whole game, and he wanted me to smile. It was sweet."

So she did. And then Escobedo got out of the jam, as Aja Paculba lined softly to shortstop Katelyn Boyd.

One inning later, no one needed to tell Escobedo or anyone else to smile. With its 7-2 victory, ASU (60-6) swept the best-of-three championship series and made Myers only the second active coach to win more than one national title. (Arizona's Mike Candrea has eight.)

Catcher Kaylyn Castillo, all 5-feet-2 of her, jumped into Escobedo's arms after Kelsey Bruder struck out to end it, and the rest of the Sun Devils quickly surrounded them.

Arizona State swept its way to a second NCAA softball title and won the Pac-10's sixth straight national championship.

That Escobedo caught Castillo, playing Don Larsen to her Yogi Berra, was no surprise. ASU caught everything within reach the entire tournament, becoming the fourth team to go through the double-elimination phase and the final without committing an error, according to the NCAA. The others: Arizona in 1998 and UCLA in '82 and '88.

"I'm impressed at how they did it all the way around," said Florida coach Tim Walton, whose team was swept in the final for the second time in three years. The Gators finished the season 56-13. "I'm thinking they're one of the best teams to come through Oklahoma City since I've been coming here, and that's one through nine, on defense and in the circle."

Defense and pitching in particular carried the Sun Devils. Escobedo, who shared the tournament most outstanding player award with Florida center fielder Michelle Moultrie, became the first freshman to win a deciding national championship game in 21 years. Heather Compton, of UCLA, one-hit Fresno State 1-0 to win the 1990 title, when a single game decided the champion.

"I feel lucky, I guess," said Escobedo, who posted a 37-3 record on the season.

Escobedo struck out only five but limited the Gators to four hits, three of them singles. It was a strange turn after Florida rolled through the elimination phase like a wrecking crew, hitting 11 homers in five games and losing only to ASU. The other seven teams in the tournament combined for 10 homers. The Gators cracked three in the last two innings of their 14-4 loss in Game 1 but managed none Tuesday, leaving four fly balls to be caught on the warning track.

"We had some good at-bats, but she's good," said Walton, referring to Escobedo.

Moultrie led off the game with a double and eventually scored. Florida did not put another runner in scoring position until Escobedo's two walks in the sixth. The Gators managed half their hits and their final run in the seventh.

"You saw a poised pitcher out there today," Myers said. "There's a reason why it takes 20 years or 30 years for a freshman to lead a club to a national championship, because it's such a rarity. It just doesn't happen. Only a unique, special-type person can have that.

"She throws hard. She throws strikes. But we didn't make an error in the College World Series, and we had timely hitting. Those are things that she thrives on. Because it gives her that sense of confidence that she can go out there, throw strikes, make them hit it, and they're going to make the plays."

Escobedo said she didn't think like that when she got to Arizona State. She tried striking everyone out, because she never had gloves like this on any other team. But Castillo, first baseman Mandy Urfer and third baseman Krista Donnenwirth gradually persuaded her to trust her fielders. Donnenwirth, in particular, was masterful in the WCWS, especially Game 1; Myers called her the best third baseman, man or woman, he has ever coached.

Florida needed to be equally crisp in the field Tuesday. But one day after Walton let Bruder and Tiffany DeFelice criticize plate umpire Chris Drumm at a postgame news conference, the Gators seemed tense.

Shortstop Cheyenne Coyle mishandled the first ground ball hit to her for an error. ASU did not score in the first, but pushed across three in the second after pitcher Stephanie Brombacher's poor choice with runners at corners and no outs. Brombacher knocked down Sam Parlich's comebacker, and instead of throwing to first for the sure out, tried for pinch runner Kayla Ketchum sliding back into third. Ketchum beat the throw, loading the bases. Brombacher walked in one run before allowing a two-run single to Katelyn Boyd.

Alix Johnson blooped a two-run single in the third just beyond second baseman Paculba for a 5-1 lead. With Hannah Rogers pitching for the Gators, Boyd added an RBI single in the fifth. Then, Annie Lockwood pulled a massive home run in the sixth, three-quarters of the way up the left-field bleachers, into a group of fatigues-wearing servicemen on hand for Military Appreciation Night.

"They beat a very talented Florida Gator team," Myers said. "And they did it with a young pitcher who has lots of friends and lots of help in the circle and great defense."

Best of all, Escobedo did it with a smile. "It's just a whole bunch of emotions right now," she said.