Originally Published: May 2, 2012
Icon SMIArizona State is trying to keep pace with a blistering hot and top-ranked Cal team.

Bach, Escobedo hold the key for Sun Devils

By Graham Hays

SEATTLE -- It's safe to say there is some difference of opinion when it comes to how easy it is to play for Arizona State coach Clint Myers. Not surprisingly, he presents the argument in his own favor in sparse terms.

"I'm not hard to figure out," said Myers, who needed just six seasons with the Sun Devils to become the fourth coach to win multiple national championships. "You want to play, you've got to hit. If you want to pitch, you've got to pitch."

But how long does it take players to adjust to the whims and machinations of the master of overstuffed rosters and endless lineup permutations, a coach who, it seemed, barely cracked a smile after his team rolled through last year's World Series?

"I'm still learning, so probably all four years," sophomore All-American Dallas Escobedo mused.

Or maybe longer.

"I'm still trying to figure it out," senior Hillary Bach said. "I've been here four years, so maybe give me a couple more months? He's such a special guy. You're never going to be perfect, and we're not trying to be perfect. But we just have to keep the communication and try to help each other as a team."

Perhaps the only point of unanimity is that it is easier to play for Myers than it is to beat him.

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J.P. Wilson/Icon SMIDallas Escobedo leads Arizona State in strikeouts this season with 143.

After a weekend sweep at Washington, a contentious series that saw Huskies ace Kaitlin Inglesby warned for hitting a batter and coaches and parents on both sides act like they had either too much or not enough of the coffee for which the city is famous, No. 2 Arizona State again looks the part of championship contender. Repeating as Pac-12 champions will almost certainly require winning a series at top-ranked California, but regardless of that outcome in two weeks, the Sun Devils and Bears increasingly look like favorites to meet for the bigger title in Oklahoma City.

Both teams have loaded lineups. Arizona State leads the Pac-12 in runs per game and OPS in conference play; California is second in both categories. Cal leads the league in ERA and opponents' batting average in conference play; Arizona State is second in both categories.

And it's on that last count that Myers is again doing things his own way, relying equally on Escobedo and Bach a season after the former pitcher's arrival appeared to push the latter off the stage.

As a freshman, Escobedo earned a share of Most Outstanding Player honors in the World Series and cemented her All-American status with a week of gutsy pitching in Oklahoma City. But although she's still one of the best pitchers in the nation, there have been some sophomore ups and downs. Her walk rate is up slightly, her strikeout rate down slightly, and home runs (18 in 133 innings) have been a bugaboo.

Enter Bach. Or more precisely, re-enter Bach, who led the team to the World Series as a freshman in 2009.

A season ago, Bach and Mackenzie Popescue combined to throw 160 1/3 innings for the Sun Devils, representing all the innings thrown by someone other than Escobedo. After combining in the middle game of the three-game series against Washington, Popescue getting the win in relief of Bach, they are already at 164 innings this season, with two Pac-12 series and the entire postseason still to play. Escobedo started twice in the Washington series, but she and Bach have split Pac-12 starts almost equally, seven for Bach and nine for Escobedo.

"I don't think there's a formula; I think that she just came out with great pitches," Myers said of a resurgence that has Bach at 19-0 with a 1.28 ERA. "Look at the freshman year in [2009] that she had, and these are things that we know that they're in there. She's been able to put them together and get after it and be successful making the ball go four directions, up, down, in, out. We're not surprised. When you recruit, you envision the ability someone is going to have down the road, and Hillary's just throwing lights out."

Bach rejected the notion that she was frustrated by throwing just 64 innings last season, saying it's difficult to be frustrated in the midst of winning a national championship. But whether it's the cause or effect of more innings this season, there is no doubt she's happier.

"I think it was me," Bach said. "I had a lot of growing up to do, and I learned a lot about myself and why I play softball and what really gets me going. That's just really helped me to enjoy the game again this year. When I was a freshman, I was having so much fun in the circle, and I really just found that love for softball again."

When she dials it up, Escobedo still looks every bit the pitcher who could win national player of the year honors before her time is up in Tempe. That power makes it tempting to think that she will get the ball with increasing regularity as the games dwindle and a potential championship hangs in the balance. But whether it makes him confounding or simple, Myers operates by one basic principle.

"I like to win," Myers said. "So whoever is in the circle, we're not going to worry about those guys fighting it out. If you have a bad day, somebody else is going in. Somebody goes in, keeps them from scoring, we swing the bats, and we've got a chance to win. We have a pretty good idea and a pretty good concept of exactly what we want to do. And they understand it, and they play with and we get it going pretty good."

Hawaii gearing up for NCAA tournament return

By Graham Hays

Which team has the most dominant pitching combination in the country?

At least by the measure of ERA, it's not Cal's All-American duo of Jolene Henderson and Val Arioto, although both rank in the top 20. It's not Arizona State's Hillary Bach and Dallas Escobedo, either.

Here's a hint: Most of us can't drive to see these two pitch.

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University of Hawai'iStephanie Ricketts has Hawaii poised for a return to the NCAA tournament after a one-year hiatus.

If you didn't know the answer was Hawaii's Stephanie Ricketts (25-3 and fifth nationally with 1.02 ERA) and Kaia Parnaby (15-2 and fourth nationally with a 1.00 ERA), you aren't alone. It's all too easy to forget about No. 14 Hawaii, even though the program has been among the most consistent winners outside of the BCS conferences in recent seasons.

The Rainbow Wahine are at it again. With a core of juniors and seniors who were part of the team that reached the World Series in 2010 and who experienced the low of missing the NCAA tournament last season, No. 14 Hawaii is 40-5 after it swept Fresno State last weekend, a record that includes a win against top-ranked Cal in addition to DePaul and two wins against Florida State. The team that reached Oklahoma City made its mark with the long ball, setting an NCAA single-season record with 158 home runs. The current group has power at the plate, but it excels with the pitching of a senior who wanted to make her own mark (Ricketts' older sister, Samantha, was an All-American at Oklahoma, as is younger sister Keilani these days) and an Australian junior willing to play her understudy.

"Having Kaia understand that Stephanie was in the program a year and Stephanie would be looked at first, that is something that some egos from some pitchers wouldn't allow," coach Bob Coolen said. "But right now, both of them complement each other really well. … It's a good relationship. They enjoy each other's company. I've had them in my van for three years when we travel together. Nothing ever has come between the two of them. They pick each other up when they need relief, and it's just been a real good relationship between the two of them."

Even as the team continues to win and move up the ladder in the human polls, Hawaii's RPI has dropped in recent weeks. At No. 18 in the most recent release, it could find itself unseeded when the NCAA tournament begins, even if it sweeps Utah State this weekend and runs through the WAC tournament at New Mexico State. Unlike last year, there is no doubt the Rainbow Wahine will be included when the NCAA tournament bracket is revealed, but there is always something to prove for a program that often feels it is out of sight and out of mind for those on the mainland.

"We're a non-BCS mid-major," Coolen said. "And that is something that as a coach, you have to get a serious reality check that you need to do something special year in and year out to put yourself in the eyes of the committee. There's no two ways about that."

Winning 40 games with two pitchers ranked in the top five nationally in ERA ought to open a few eyes. A regular-season conference title wouldn't hurt, either.

Bubble watch

By Graham Hays

There are 10 conferences currently represented in the top 40 of the RPI. Assuming for the moment that 10 of those teams claim automatic bids to the NCAA tournament as conference champions of one sort or another, that means 30 of those teams in the top 40 would be in line for at-large bids. Take out Kentucky, currently No. 39 in the RPI but not yet eligible for the NCAA tournament at 26-27 overall, and that drops to 29 at-large bids spoken for.

The above leaves five at-large bids available for teams not ranked in the top 40. Based on selection committee history of hewing close to the RPI, there would need to be a glaring reason to bump a team in the top 40 out of the mix. So while a team like No. 35 Central Florida or No. 40 UAB could yet move back into the bubble debate, precedent suggests they would be safe if the bracket came out today.

RPI Nos. 41-45: San Diego State, Kansas, Texas State, Houston, Boston University
San Diego State (Mountain West), Texas State (Southland) and Boston University (America East) are favorites to win automatic bids out of their respective leagues but have strong at-large cases, especially in the first two cases. Kansas and Houston are on less sure footing. The Jayhawks are 9-14 against top-100 teams, and four of those wins came against Connecticut, North Florida (twice) and Stony Brook. Houston, already in precarious bubble position to begin with, was swept at UCF last week and lost six of its past nine games. The most important thing for the Jayhawks and Cougars may be hoping teams like Louisiana-Lafayette and Massachusetts don't lose in conference tournaments, thereby shrinking the available at-large spots.

RPI Nos. 46-50: Wisconsin, Purdue, Hofstra, Northwestern, Arkansas
This is where a weak bubble appears. Hofstra (Colonial) and Georgia Southern (Southern) are strong bets to earn automatic bids but don't have the top-50 wins to jump over teams in the at-large fray. Northwestern needs to win six of its final seven games to reach .500 and be eligible, while Big Ten rival Illinois is 23-23 with six games to play, including three at Northwestern. Arkansas is itself flirting with .500 and didn't qualify for the SEC tournament. Purdue has the best at-large case, particularly after taking the series against Wisconsin.

Still lurking: Fresno State (No. 58), Nebraska (No. 60), South Alabama (No. 53)
Fresno State (No. 58) did itself no favors in dropping all three games at Hawaii last week, but the Bulldogs are still 12-12 against RPI top-100 teams and a respectable 6-9 against top-50 teams, including a win against UCLA. … Nebraska trails five Big Ten teams in RPI, but a closer look reveals a strong at-large profile than that suggests. Its 13 top-100 wins and six top-50 wins are among the most for a team outside the top 40, and that includes a win against Arizona. … Short of a team other than Louisiana-Lafayette winning the Sun Belt conference tournament, the league's hopes for multiple NCAA tournament bids rest on South Alabama sweeping two games from Troy this weekend. Troy is only one spot behind South Alabama in the RPI, but losing three at home last weekend against North Texas sealed its fate. South Alabama has wins against Florida State, UAB and Purdue out of conference.


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