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Husky Softball: Previewing #Pac12SB opener at Arizona State

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#1 Washington begins conference play with a 3-game series at #13 ASU starting Saturday night. For a closer look at the Devils, I spoke with Andrew Bell, a writer for ASU’s State Press.

Edward Strong

Top-ranked Washington knocked off Bryant University 7-0 on Wednesday to secure an undefeated entry to Pac-12 play. Seldom-used 4th pitcher Kristin Cochran had the performance of her career, no-hitting the Bulldogs for 5 13 innings before giving up a single up the middle. A later box score change turned what was originally referred to as an error on UW in the third inning to a bunt single, but the final line for Cochran was still fantastic:

6 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 6 K, Win (1-0)

Cochran, a senior, had only pitched 30 13 innings in her career entering Wednesday, and had just recorded a total of 5 outs this season in 2 appearances. She took 92 points off her career ERA against Bryant, lowering it from 5.54 to 4.62.

Now the Huskies head to the Valley of the Sun for a big 3-game showdown Saturday through Monday. #1 Washington (28-0) opens conference play this weekend with a bang, visiting 13th-ranked Arizona State (22-3) in a 3-game series starting Saturday night. I spoke with Andrew Bell, the softball beat writer for The State Press, Arizona State’s student newspaper, to talk about the Sun Devils’ hot start and preview the conference opener. Thank you to Andrew for his time and open answers.

Schedule for the weekend (All times PDT):

  • Saturday, 5 PM: Pac-12 Net (WA & AZ)
  • Sunday, 2 PM: Pac-12 Net (WA & AZ)
  • Monday, 2 PM: Pac-12 Net (National, WA, & AZ)

I’ll be live tweeting all 3 games as well (twitter.com/DawgoneCrazy)

Ed Strong, UWDP: You have 3 Fresno State transfers on your roster (Kindra Hackbarth, Maddi Hackbarth, and Morgan Howe), reuniting with head coach Trisha Ford one year after her arrival in Tempe. Did they all make that decision together? What more info (if any) is there on their transfer?

Andrew Bell, State Press: With the three transfers, all of them bring something different to the table, and they all have different skill sets. As for their decision to come to ASU, I wouldn’t call it a “package deal,” but they all are very close with one another and I believe their experiences at Fresno are helping them at ASU. Obviously, Kindra and Maddi are twin sisters, so they are very close, but all three get along really well and I think their past experiences with Coach Ford have been really beneficial.

Kindra and Maddi were originally committed to play at Fresno State for their freshmen year, and then Ford was hired for what she called her “dream job” at ASU. Therefore at Fresno last year, Maddi and Kindra were somewhat thrown in to play with a new head coach and something different, and I think their decision to come to ASU ultimately relied on their close relationship with Ford and having a good past experience with her. As for Howe, she is a year older, so she played her freshman year under Ford, but then dealt with the same dilemma last season. All three of them noted that they enjoyed their time in Fresno and they left behind some close friends and teammates, and it was good to have a different experience with a new coach, but I think the trio’s decision to come to ASU was something they went through together, and having that comfort level with Ford definitely helped.

ES: Maddi Hackbarth had a fantastic start with the Devils (particularly at the Kajikawa Classic), but has cooled off significantly since. Who has stepped up to keep the offense humming?

AB: I think one of the things that is so dangerous about ASU’s lineup this season is that they can hurt teams 1-9. Maddi obviously got off to such a great start that it’s almost like she came back down to earth, and I think she is still going to be a big threat in the middle of that lineup throughout the season. She hit a home run on Sunday (vs Minnesota), and she has also done a great job working with a really good pitching staff who lost Sashel Palacios this offseason.

As for who has stepped up and who is swinging the bat really well, Nicole Chilson (who has upped her BA, OBP, and SLG by 120 points over last year) is a senior outfielder who has been on fire as of late, and first baseman Danielle Gibson is on pace to have a record-setting freshman season, hitting .410 with team-highs of 10 homers and a 1.000 slugging percentage. Both players are left-handed hitters, and what strikes me the most from what they have done is that they are just so calm at the plate right now. Over the last two weeks, I haven’t seen them swing at any bad pitches, and they look relaxed in the box, and they are hitting the ball to all different parts of the field. Last week, Chilson had five RBI’s in a midweek game and Gibson hit three home runs in ASU’s last series against Minnesota, but as the season goes along and different players go through the challenges of the Pac-12, I think that ASU’s depth 1-9 is really going to help them. It’s the next-player up mentality that really stands out to me.

ES: G Juarez had a solid freshman year, but she’s taken it to another level this year, striking out about half of her outs with an ERA just over 1.00. What’s the difference from last year?

AB: I think for G, it’s just development. I think if you ask anyone on ASU last year what they thought of G, they would tell you it doesn’t surprise them with what she’s doing this season. Obviously, the numbers speak for themselves and are insane, but she has got great pitches and she can mix speeds and elevate in the zone, which is huge when facing a lot of really good hitters like teams that Washington and other Pac-12 teams have.

I also think as the season has gone along, her chemistry with Maddi has gotten going. That battery is locked in right now, and both of them are dialing up a lot of good pitch sequences, and the scary part is that both of them are only sophomores. That chemistry is only going to grow and continue to get better, and I truly believe that G will be up with Dallas Escobedo and other ASU greats as one of the best players to wear an ASU uniform when it’s all said and done.

ES: During the Washington-ASU series in Seattle last year, each of the Sun Devils 3 main pitchers — Juarez, Dale Ryndak, & Breanna Macha — pitched about equally. Is that about the formula this year as well?

AB: I believe that’s going to be the sequence, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Coach Ford mix in any of her four pitchers. All four, between Juarez, Ryndak, Macha and Alyssa Loza all proved they were capable and efficient pitching in conference play last year, and Ford can really call upon any one of them depending on the situation.

Over the weekend, ASU played three games against Minnesota and Ford went with Juarez, Macha, and Juarez again for the third game. Obviously, G has been in the zone over the last two weeks, so I think that might have factored into the decision, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see, similar to a baseball rotation, Juarez, Macha and Ryndak go 1, 2, 3. Also, if Washington gets into any one of ASU’s pitchers, Macha kind of excelled in late inning situations and coming out of the bullpen almost as a closer last season, but like I said, any one of those four pitchers is liable to be thrown in the circle, and they all have different attributes that make them successful.

ES: It’s been a strong start for the Sun Devils. But has there been an area ASU has struggled in you can single out? Or if not, what was the deciding factor in their two losses?

AB: As of late, everything has been firing on all cylinders for them. The pitching and defense has been lights out, and everyone in their lineup has been productive. They are rolling, but if there was one area where I think maybe they had early season issues was in Palm Springs. They made 10 errors in a weekend, but since that time, they have cleaned that up, and their defense has been superb as of late. Defensively, their outfield might be as good as anyone’s in the country with Kindra Hackbarth’s speed and Morgan Howe’s arm in center field. Jade Gortarez has also made Sportscenter like plays at shortstop, and they have really been solid in that part of the game since that trip to Palm Springs. I also think it wasn’t only them, but every team early in the season is trying to work and figure things out whether it be defense, hitting or whatever it is. It’s just a part of figuring things out in non-conference play to really be prepared for Pac-12 play.

ES: Any players that were expected to have larger roles out due to injury?

AB: Right now, everyone is healthy and ready to go for them. Obviously, there are probably a lot of bumps and bruises with all of the games that they have played over their spring break and in non-conference, but nothing serious or major, and ASU’s full arsenal should be out on the field this weekend.

ES: Open-ended question: In your opinion, what player or team-wide statistic has been the biggest surprise so far for ASU?

AB: For me, I think it’s the 1.37 team ERA. The offensive numbers have been impressive and the easy answer is G’s strikeout numbers, but that ERA is ridiculous for four pitchers who have all gotten playing time. To have four pitchers who are consistently that good is absurd. Each one matches each other and none of them are alike. They all have different pitches and styles, yet they still make it work. It’s been impressive, and I am interested to see how that ERA holds up with Washington and a lot of other really good teams in conference play.

ES: Any other interesting notes?

AB: One interesting side note is the different roles for returning players this season. Fa Leilua led the team in homers last year, and she has primarily been coming off of the bench in a pinch-hitting role this season. Skylar McCarty was also the team’s everyday center fielder who hit in the one or two spot in the order last year, but this season, she has played mostly corner outfield spots or out of the DP spot, and she has changed her approach. She’s hitting for a lot more power compared to being a slap-hitter. She hit a home run on Sunday and she has been very productive at the plate, but it’s still a different role, and lastly, the third base position has been interesting.

Taylor Becerra was a part of the Pac-12 All-Freshman team in 2016 and she hit .338 last year, but she has faced some adversity this year. She’s hitting .200 right now and on the flip side of that, Bella Loomis is a freshman utility infielder who can play third base, and she has gotten off to a really good start, hitting .324. Loomis has made it tough to take her out of the lineup, and there has been a lot of healthy competition from position-to- position. Becerra is still one of the best defensive third basemen in the conference, and I think she will be fine. She had some good at-bats and RBI’s over the weekend, and every player goes through ups and downs in a season. It’s a part of the game, especially when you are constantly facing good competition. Nonetheless, it’s been an interesting dynamic, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Becerra heat up at the plate this weekend or next weekend. As the old saying goes, she’s due.