Look For Offense In NCAA Softball

Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Kayla Bonstrom enters the NCAA Tournament with a batting average of .414 to go along with eight home runs and 51 RBI. A closer look at her phenomenal 2013 season shows that she actually was more productive in conference games than in nonleague tilts.

Yes, in a conference that features All-American caliber pitchers such as Oregon’s Jessica Moore, Cal’s Jolene Henderson, Arizona State’s Dallas Escobedo and Washington’s Kaitlin Inglesby, Bonstrom actually was able to improve her output against some of the stiffest pitching in the nation.

In most years, Bonstrom’s splits would come as a shock. But Pac-12 Networks analyst Tammy Blackburn says times are changing in college softball. With improved technology in bats and equipment and more of an emphasis on video evaluation, Blackburn says the focus should now be on an ever-improving efficiency and explosiveness from college hitters.

“There are just too many good hitters now,” Blackburn said. “With all the video to break down your swing, the bats are different, the technology of the equipment is totally different. It’s completely changed the game of softball. Most coaches are all recruiting two or three good pitchers because they know hitters have access to too many resources.”

With the depth of college hitters growing, it may get harder and harder for a team to make a deep postseason run on the strength of just one dominant pitcher. The top two teams in the Pac-12 this season – Oregon and Arizona State – each feature two accomplished hurlers which together make up four of the top six pitchers in the Pac-12 in terms of ERA. Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year Jessica Moore is complemented by freshman Cheridan Hawkins, who is 17-5 with a 1.68 ERA. The Sun Devils’ Dallas Escobedo, a three-time All-Pac-12 first team selection,  is joined by fellow junior MacKenzie Popescue to form a formidable tandem.

Not surprisingly, the Ducks and Sun Devils are considered the teams to have the best chance of making a deep run in this year’s NCAA Tournament, which begins today. There are eight Pac-12 teams in this year’s field – along with Oregon and ASU, Arizona, Cal, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA and Washington are also in the field.

The Ducks (46-9) begin play tonight against BYU in their own regional. The other seven teams get underway Friday.

“There is just a lot of flare offensively that we haven’t seen in the past,” Blackburn said. “It’s sure fun to see some of the numbers. Players are stepping up when things get hot and heavy. That’s what makes softball so great today. It’s not boring to watch.”

The Pac-12 features three teams featured in the top-25 nationally in team batting average – Oregon is tied for fourth (.339), Arizona St. tied for seventh (.337) and Washington is tied for 22nd (.315). The Ducks feature 2013 Pac-12 batting champion Alexa Peterson, who is batting a healthy .471.

Oregon’s combination of deep pitching and explosive offense makes them a favorite to reach the Women’s College World Series. The Ducks are the No. 3 seed in the tournament.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Oregon can make a deep run,” Blackburn said. “One of the reasons is they play well on both sides.”

Blackburn singled out Popescue as being one of the more underappreciated pitchers in the Pac-12. She is 19-6 with a 2.03 ERA. Escobedo, meanwhile, is right behind her in ERA at 2.31 to go along with a 2.31 ERA. The Sun Devils also have Pac-12 Player of the Year Amber Freeman.

“Mackenzie doesn’t get a lot of credit, but she is a very good pitcher,” Blackburn said. “If Dallas Esobedo is having an off day, Popescue can come in and carry the team. That bodes well for the tournament. It’s not longer a pitcher’s game. It’s a hitter’s game. More so now than ever, you need a pitching staff versus a pitcher to win a national championship.”

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