This is the series they’ve been waiting for.
ASU softball will put all its skills to the test this weekend as the Sun Devils travel to Eugene, Oregon, to take on a first-ranked Oregon team that has only lost one game in the Pac-12 so far this season.
There has been no greater test to the skill level of this team than what it is going to face this series.
The Sun Devils have had their sights set on being Pac-12 champions since the season began, and taking some wins against the Ducks this weekend could open up that opportunity. But the Ducks are not pushovers, and they will put coach Craig Nicholson and his players through the ringer before they add any more losses to their nearly perfect time in conference.
There is no doubt that the pitching and defense for the Sun Devils have been sharp all year, but the batting is the biggest concern against an Oregon pitching squad that rivals that of the Sun Devils.
“We’ve just been inconsistent; we haven’t been bad in that area just inconsistent from one day to the next,” Nicholson said. “It’s like which offensive ball club is going to show up? Some of that is predicated on who you’re playing and that kind of stuff, but we need to continue to do a better job in that area.”
Consistency in pitching makes up for the unpredictable hitting for the Sun Devils, with both of their starters, seniors Mackenzie Popescue and Dallas Escobedo, owning earned run averages less than 1.70.
Nicholson has said that Oregon has power in its lineup but the real danger is in the first three batters of the order whose short game can put runners on base very quickly.
“You’ve got to really control the top of the order if you want a chance to beat them,” Nicholson said. “You’ve got to keep the rabbits off the bases.”
The Ducks are a contact team, and while they do have two double-digit home run hitters, their danger comes from high batting averages and the ability to put the ball in play.
This is something that Popescue has to think about for the Sun Devils as a contact pitcher that counts on her defense to field the grounders her style of pitching brings.
“I think if I throw the way that I do and keep it low and mix up the speeds, they will put it in play but they’re not going to hit it (hard),” Popescue said.
The pitching staff of the Ducks cannot be ignored, either, with their ace, junior Cheridan Hawkins, owning a 1.35 ERA, and their other starter, junior Karissa Hovinga, hovering just over two.
Hawkins has thrown substantially more innings than Hovinga this year and will likely pitch twice against the Sun Devils.
Facing this beast on the mound will be a mountain to climb for a Sun Devil team that tends to leave runners on base.
Senior right fielder Bailey Wigness said that it’s not about the hitting but seizing the opportunity to score runs that makes the difference when playing against such difficult Pac-12 teams.
“We need to do a better job at manufacturing runs, moving runners,” Wigness said. “You have very limited chances to score and you need to execute when you get the chance.”
The series begins Friday at 5 p.m., followed by two afternoon games to close the series.
Reach the reporter at Nkwit@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @NolanKwit