Thursday night, the defending national champion Arizona State Sun Devil softball team opens Super Regional play as they host the dangerous Ragin' Cajuns of Louisiana-Lafayette.
ASU's road to the Super Regional is familiar to Sun Devil faithful. Coming in to the tournament as the No. 3 seed, the Sun Devils easily dispatching LIU Brooklyn to open Tempe region play, ASU locked horns with Syracuse in what turned out to be a three-game battle. ASU squeaked past the Orange on Saturday, but were shutout by Syracuse ace Jenna Caira on Sunday afternoon, sending the region title to a deciding third game. Thankfully, ASU pitcher Dallas Escobedo tossed a shutout to keep the Sun Devils on track for a repeat.
Louisiana-Lafeyette--the No. 14 seed--hosted a region and posted a perfect 3-0 record, first dispatching Mississippi Valley State and then Stanford twice.
The Ragin' Cajuns are a potent team both on the mound and with the bat. Let's breakdown the threat they pose.
Record: 52-4 (22-3 away from home)
Previous Meeting: These teams battled on March 15th of this year, with the Cajuns cruising to a 9-2 win. Nerissa Myers and Sarah Draheim each homered and drove in three in what was one of ASU pitcher Dallas Escobedo's worst performances of her career.
Offense: This will be a major challenge for ASU's pitchers. In Katie Smith and Natalie Fernandez, ULL has two of the nation's top hitters. Smith is tied with ASU shortstop Katelyn Boyd for 8th with a .444 average, while Fernandez is 15th at .433.
The Cajuns are not merely contact hitters. Their order features the top run producer in the nation in Christi Orgeron, who has 94 RBI on the year. Orgeron's 22 home runs are tied for sixth most in the country. A big chunk of Orgeron's RBIs have driven in Nerissa Myers, who leads the nation in runs (80) and the team in on-base percentage at .514.
The team does a fair amount of running on the basepaths, ranking eighth in the nation in steals. Smith, Fernandez and Myers lead the way there, with each player posting over 20 stolen bases.
Overall, the team is first in the nation in runs (8.09 per game), third in average (.345) and eighth in slugging (.535).
Pitching: The Cajuns have a talented pair of starters in Ashley Brignac and Jordan Wallace, with each having made 28 starts on the season and posting nearly identical innings totals (Brignac 173, Wallace 173 1/3).
In fact, their performances by and large this season were largely the same. In all the key numbers, the differences were minor and overall excellent. ERA: Brignac 2.02, Wallace 2.10. Opponent's average: Wallace .182, Brignac .203. Strikeouts: Brignac 175, Wallace 164.
If anything difference can be drawn, it's that Brignac has better control, having issued fewer walks (51 to 60) and surrendering fewer home runs (15 to 19).
In any event, the Sun Devil offense will be facing a tough adversary.
Key Battle: It's cliche to say it during postseason play, but the pitching will determine the winner. Each team possesses very potent offenses (as mentioned earlier, ULL is No. 1 in scoring, ASU is No. 3), so talent at the plate will not be an issue.
Therefore, it will be a battle of two teams each with excellent starting duos. While they have been very good, ULL's duo tends to pitch more to contact, and given ASU's offensive talent, could be an issue. On the other hand, ASU's pair of Hillary Bach and Dallas Escobedo have been phenomenal, with each having an opponent's average under .200. ASU's advantage in this area should ultimately be the difference.
Prediction: ASU in three