Pitchers duel it out
Three of the nation's top pitchers take the mound at WCWS
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Putting a dominant pitcher in the circle goes a long way toward winning a national championship in college softball and three of the sport’s elite will go head-to-head during the next couple days.
Arizona State, with Dallas Escobedo, meets Texas and Blaire Luna to kick off Thursday's festivities. If that is not enough, USA Softball Player of the Year Keilani Ricketts, a fire-balling left-hander, leads top-seeded Oklahoma against Michigan in the nightcap. Whoever wins the Escobedo-Luna duel will most likely get a shot at Ricketts and the Sooners on Friday. Unless a pair of Michigan sophomores are up to the challenge.
Ricketts, also the POY in 2012, has been as good as any pitcher the sport has seen in decades. Her numbers are nothing less than phenomenal.
In 2013, she is 31-1 with a 1.22 earned run average in 207.1 innings pitched. She has 311 strikeouts and tossed 16 shutouts. Her career numbers show a 129-35 record with 1566 strikeouts in 1043.1 innings pitched.
After leading her team to the WCWS best-of-three championship series in 2012 – OU lost to Alabama – the expectations for this season were even higher … if that is possible.
“What is impressive about Keilani [Ricketts] is how well she has handled those expectations,” OU head coach Patty Gasso said. “It’s not easy when you have those expectations to perform at such a high level every week. She’s done that.”
The imposing 6-foot-2 left-hander credits her teammates for her success.
“Winning the [POY] award is definitely an exciting honor, but as you saw last year, it didn’t win us a national championship,” Ricketts said on Wednesday. “It’s not a one-person game when it comes to the World Series. We know we have to focus on working together as a team because that’s what’s going to give us our best option.
“I have to keep throwing like it is any other game, give my team the best chance to win.”
Arizona State and Texas provides a made-for-television matchup in the circle.
Luna, a senior for the Longhorns, has been on fire in the postseason. Last weekend in Austin, she tossed a no-hitter to beat Florida State and send UT to Oklahoma City. Luna’s season numbers show a 30-5 standard with a razor-thin 1.16 ERA. Her 11.7 strikeouts per seven innings rank No. 1 in the NCAA. The postseason shows a 4-0 mark with a .97 ERA in 29 innings of work.
Escobedo is hoping to repeat her performance from two seasons ago when she led the Sun Devils to a national championship. As a freshman in 2011, Escobedo was an incredible 37-3 with a 1.51 ERA and a major part of ASU’s 10-0 postseason to end a 60-6 campaign. This season as a junior, Escobedo is 30-4 with 317 strikeouts in 243 innings. ASU won two games in the 2012 WCWS, meaning Escobedo is now a savvy veteran of Hall of Fame Stadium.
“In the past few weeks or month, I’ve definitely been focusing more on my mentality and what approach I need to take when I’m on the mound,” Escobedo said. “Coach [Clint Myers] and I worked closely in the bullpen, which is not very common, so he had some things to say to me and I listened, and it’s been working out so far.”
“These eight teams here, they all have good pitching,” Myers said. “You are going to see great pitchers in every game this week because if you don’t have good pitching you are not going to make it this far. This is still a game where good pitching beats good hitting.”
Experience, and a variety of pitches, never hurt a pitcher’s success in the WCWS.
“Having experience here, it calms the nerves I guess, and it gives you a little confidence, but we know that we can’t just live off that experience and we have to focus on what we’ve been doing all year and taking it one game at a time,” Ricketts said.
Ricketts knows a thing or two about big matchups in the WCWS. A year ago, she out-dueled California’s Jolene Henderson of California, striking out 16.
Michigan’s young tandem of Sara Driesenga and Haylie Wagner will get a chance to show their stuff Thursday. Driesenga, a right-hander, is 30-7 with a 1.75 ERA, while Wagner, a lefty, is 19-3 with a 2.50 ERA.
Michigan head coach Carol Hutchins expects to use both this week. The duo pitched the Wolverines past California and Henderson at regionals and by Louisiana-Lafayette and Jordan Wallace last weekend.
“We are very fortunate,” Hutchins said. “We have gone with a two-pitcher attack over the course of the season. We went with one pitcher throughout the regional, but then used Haylie Wagner somewhat in the super regional. They both give very different looks. One comes from the right side and one from the left side.
“I think it’s going to take both of them to help us get through this World Series.”
Pitching did not highlight Thursday’s first two games. A walk-off home run in the bottom of the eighth inning by Kimberlee Souza gave Washington a 4-3 victory in the opener. Tennessee broke open a 3-2 game with a 4-run sixth inning to take a 7-2 lead. UF starter Hannah Rogers, who entered with a 33-5 record and a 1.48 ERA, did not make it out of the first inning.