Notebook: Dallas Escobedo finds groove

Arizona State ace Dallas Escobedo is second among active pitchers in career wins and third in strikeouts. Courtesy of Arizona State

Here's a scary thought for the rest of the softball world.

Dallas Escobedo thinks she's just getting the hang of this pitching business.

This all comes three years after she was the ace who pitched Arizona State to a national championship as a freshman All-American. A player who set herself an impossible encore as the athlete whose run in Oklahoma City earned her a share of Women's College World Series Most Outstanding Player honors.

One title coming in. One title going out?

"I finally learned how to pitch," Escobedo said of her senior season. "I know what I need to think about and where I need to take breaths. It's just like finally I've been catching on to what I've been trying to do for four years."

Escobedo makes an increasingly persuasive case in the circle. The most recent demonstration came in this past weekend's Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton, Calif., annually home to one of the strongest tournament fields in college softball.

She opened with a one-hit shutout against Michigan on Thursday in which she struck out nine batters without a walk. A day later, she duplicated the one-hitter and added 10 more strikeouts and another shutout, this one in eight innings, against Nebraska, another team that spent this past June in the World Series. She closed out the tournament with a win against Wisconsin. She finally allowed a run in that one, although just the one, but still surrendered just three hits in five innings.

All of that after a midweek no-hitter against Longwood in which she struck out 13 batters.

The week's total: 27 innings pitched, 38 strikeouts, five hits and one earned run allowed.

For the season, she is 11-2 with an ERA of 0.80 and 138 strikeouts against 11 walks in 88 innings.

Her timing couldn't be better.

Days before they headed to Fullerton, the Sun Devils gathered as players to talk about what had gone wrong the previous weekend. With the exception of the annual trips to the Garman (named for the longtime Fullerton coach), Arizona State rarely leaves Tempe before Pac-12 play. That means it rarely loses many games before conference play, either. Losing three home games in four days, as happened two weeks ago against Ball State, Minnesota and South Carolina, was about as likely as losing games to snow.

That sort of thing didn't happen when former coach Clint Myers was around was a common refrain in the days that followed. The players might not have worried about that perception, but Escobedo said it was made clear, by players, that getting their "butts kicked" by the schedule that awaited was in line if they didn't take better care of details.

Something else that never happened under Myers? A perfect record in Fullerton, where the team typically plays the standard five games of a weekend tournament. Even the 2008 championship team, which otherwise put together a résumé as one of the best teams of all time, lost to Florida State in Fullerton, one of just five losses all season.

Add Escobedo's results to wins against Texas and San Jose State behind plenty of hitting and the pitching of Mackenzie Popescue and the response said a lot.

"We still know how to play softball," Escobedo said. "We all knew that we were still really good. It wasn't just the coach. It was the players who were really good."

Escobedo is second among active pitchers in career wins and third in strikeouts. She should finish her career with at least 120 wins, 1,200 strikeouts and a national title, joining a list that currently includes only Alicia Hollowell, Danielle Lawrie and Keilani Ricketts. And yet because she won the title as a freshman and because her ERA and home runs allowed climbed the subsequent two seasons, she has always faced a challenge in living up to expectations with which her peers are not burdened.

Call it a Benjamin Button career.

"I think she's gotten to a point where she has now relaxed and has really bought into the process and the next pitch and worrying about today," Arizona State coach Craig Nicholson said. "But do I think that [pressure] has been there in the past for her? Absolutely. I mean, I think it's pretty natural for anybody, you come in and win a national championship as a freshman, the expectations are through the roof.

"What I've really tried to emphasize with her, and not just her but the whole team, is don't worry about the expectations. Worry about what's going on right now."

Her dad puts it another way, reminding her she can lose a battle but still win the war. She doesn't need to be perfect, even if the results to this point in the season suggest that the more she believes that, the closer to perfection she gets.

Escobedo seemed ideally equipped to handle the World Series stage as a freshman. Watch those games again and her face rarely betrayed her emotions, positive or negative. She just pitched, it seemed. But she was a freshman. The goal isn't to be that again. It's to be the sum of everything since.

"How fast everything has gone, it's beyond me," Escobedo said. "I think that I'm a totally different person now than I was coming in and a different pitcher. Being able to look back and even just the decisions I used to make, I'm like 'What was I thinking when I wore that?' But I appreciate everything that has been given to me, and I'm so thankful that I'm here in Arizona and I was able to stay home in my home state to play and go to college where my family and friends are all able to come watch."

Not that they would mind making plans for another extended stay in Oklahoma City.

Players of the week

Emily Allard, OF, Northwestern: It's good to see Allard back on the field after she missed most of what was supposed to be her senior season a year ago. For opponents, on the other hand, it is getting a little old seeing her on base all the time. She had 12 hits in five games at a tournament hosted by South Florida, including three games with three hits. She also stole five bases, increasing her already substantial lead as Division I's best active thief. She has 130 career stolen bases, and only three other active players have even 100. Next up is becoming just the 21st player with 150 career stolen bases.

Kristen Brown, SS, North Carolina: Take your pick between Brown or teammate Jenna Kelly. It was that kind of weekend at the plate for the Tar Heels, who piled up 31 runs in a three-game sweep against ACC newcomer Syracuse. Brown's contributions added up to nine RBIs on five hits, including a home run and two doubles. The sophomore shortstop who leads the Tar Heels in slugging percentage this season recorded just two outs in the series. Kelly wasn't far off the pace. She had a pair of home runs and a double among five hits and drove in seven runs against the Orange.

Carly Hummel, P, Mississippi: Oregon couldn't beat Florida. Neither could Michigan. But Mississippi handed the Gators their first loss of the season and nearly doubled the total thanks to Hummel. A senior who followed coach Windy Thees from Memphis to Oxford two years ago, Hummel struck out 12 batters and allowed just three hits in shutting out Florida to open SEC play (as impressively, given her opponent's penchant for working counts, she walked just one batter). Florida still didn't have much of an answer two days later, although it took its six hits and two runs and left with a series-clinching win. Not bad for a week that began for Hummel in Utah, where she had 12 strikeouts in a perfect game against Utah State.

Sierra Hyland, P, Cal Poly: There is a temptation to just reserve this spot permanently for Loyola Marymount's Sydney Gouveia, who somehow struck out 50 batters in 26 innings this past week, but Hyland gives us reason to share the wealth. All the freshman did was record six wins in three days. That included back-to-back one-hit shutouts on Friday against Stony Brook and Fairleigh Dickinson, an 11-strikeout win against Sacramento State on Saturday and a 12-strikeout win against Santa Clara on Sunday. All told, she struck out 45 batters in 37 1/3 innings and compiled an ERA of 0.56 for the week.

Kelsey Nunley, P, Kentucky: There was a time when Kentucky opening SEC play by winning a series on the road would have been a big deal. Now it's par for the course for the Wildcats, and Nunley is an important reason the machine keeps rolling. Kentucky's sophomore ace went the distance in both wins in a three-game series at Mississippi State. She pitched a three-hit shutout in the finale, and that was the lesser outing. She opened the series with a no-hitter, her second of the season. It's not a one-to-one correlation (she has relief wins), but it's telling that she has 34 career wins and 37 career starts.