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Cal Softball: Previewing The Series Of The Year

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The Pac-12 is almost certainly the strongest softball conference in the country. Eight of the nine schools that field a softball team are in the RPI top 25, and those eight will be in the playoffs. And yet despite such incredible depth of talent, two teams have combined to go 36-4 so far.

Unsurprisingly, those two teams are now near unanimous first and second in both major polls and the RPI. The humans and the computers agree. Cal and Arizona State are the two best teams in the country. And they just so happen to be playing a three game series that will functionally decide everything that’s important about the regular season.

I’m not sure how much importance the Bears and Sun Devils place on the #1 overall seed in the playoffs. It’s certainly an honor, and hypothetically speaking the #1 seed would have an (undetectably?) easier playoff path. But both teams will be expected to return to Oklahoma City for the College World Series no matter the regional path they have to navigate. No, the bigger prize in my mind is the conference title. To earn that title the Bears will have to go through the defending champs.

Consider the following comparisons:

Cal Rank Rank ASU
Batting Average .322 3 2 .346
On Base Percentage .426 3 1 .453
Slugging Percentage .539 3 2 .591
Runs 358 2 1 379
Earned Run Average 1.22 1 2 2.09
Strikeouts 392 1 6 274
Walks Allowed 86 1 3 106
Fielding Percentage .980 1 3 .976

The two highest scoring teams in the conference, the two stingiest defenses in the conference. What more can a fan ask for?

As the table above indicates, ASU’s strength is their lineup. They score about a half a run more per game than the Bears, and their season stats are juuuust a little bit better than Cal’s. A touch more power. A handful more walks (Three Sun Devils have an on base percentage over .500). The difference is razor thin but it’s there.

Cal more than makes up for that with probably the best run prevention abilities in the country. Only Hawaii allows fewer runs per game, only Tennessee has committed fewer errors, and after a non-exhaustive search, I think only Oklahoma has more strikeouts.

Scouting the Sun Devils

The Sun Devils are led by Katelyn Boyd, there own version of Valerie Arioto. A slugging 1st baseman with 24 extra base hits and an on base percentage near .600, she’s the big challenge. But Alix Johnson, Bailey Wigness and Elizabeth Caporuscio are all good enough that you can’t constantly pitch around Boyd.

Like Cal, ArizonaState tends to follow the ABA starting pitcher rotation, with ace Dallas Escobedo starting the 1st and 3rd game and Hillary Bach starting the 2nd. If Cal hits well they’ll also see Mackenzie Popescue in relief. Escobedo has actually struggled this year, at least relative to the incredible standards of her freshman season when she pitched ASU to a national title. She’s walked a few too many batters and has allowed a few more home runs than you might expect. But she’s still striking out batters left and right and nobody doubts she has the talent to shut down any lineup.

All games at Levine-Fricke Field, BerkeleyCA
Thursday, May 10, 2012, 3:00 pm
Friday, May 11, 2012, 3:00 pm
Saturday, May 12, 2012, 12:00 pm

It’s also worth noting that Saturday will be Senior Day for a particularly talented group of seniors: Valerie Arioto, Frani Echavarria, Elia Reid, Jamia Reid and Jace Williams. We can be optimistic that the group has a few more games at StrawberryCanyon to look forward to, but that doesn’t make Senior Day any less special. Go Bears!