By Tom Blodgett
The prevailing wisdom entering this postseason, at least outside the Sun Devil softball clubhouse, was that Arizona State would go as far in the NCAA tournament as G Juarez would carry them.
Seems like inside the clubhouse, ASU had a different idea.
In the past few weeks, senior pitcher Breanna Macha has stepped her game to new heights, giving the Sun Devils a potent partner for Juarez, and one who gives opposing teams a much different look than the ASU ace.
“They have one of the best pitching staffs in the country,” Ole Miss coach Mike Smith said, shortly after the Sun Devils vanquished his Rebels 9-0 Sunday to win the Tempe Regional. “You get G, and then Macha throwing in the bullpen, and that’s a great 1-2 punch.”
That could help ASU next when the Sun Devils host South Carolina in a Super Regional. Get past that, and it would be on to Oklahoma City.
Smith was caught by surprise Saturday when, after his team and the Sun Devils won their Friday games, Macha (pronounced Ma-Ha) was tapped to pitch the Saturday winner’s bracket game, rather than Juarez. He said he expected to see the big lefty – as did everyone else.
But ASU coach Trish Ford said she had a gut feeling about it and that Macha had earned it with how she was rolling recently. Macha responded with a three-hitter and nine strikeouts in a 7-1 win against Ole Miss. The sole run was a solo homer in the seventh inning when the game was out of hand.
When ASU jumped out to a 5-0 first-inning lead Sunday and 9-0 after three innings, Ford again made a change, bringing in Macha to close out the game. She retired all six batters she faced, three on strikeouts, to bring home the regional title.
“We’re just very fortunate that we have two great pitchers,” Ford said. “This is Bre’s senior year, and if you talk to her as much as I talk to her, she wants this. “
It’s not as if Macha is a revelation. She’s been a stalwart member of ASU’s pitching staff since her freshman year, when she led the Sun Devils with 18 wins. She has 53 wins and nine saves for her ASU career.
It’s just that this year she’s been at her best. She’s 15-6 with a 2.22 ERA and that last number has been steadily dropping the past month. On senior weekend against Stanford, she figured in all three wins, going 2-0 with a save.
Still, most media members and fans figured that Macha, who was ASU’s Game 2 starter throughout the Pac-12 season, sandwiched between Juarez starts, would be relegated to a lesser role for postseason.
In the Tempe Regional, that clearly wasn’t the case. Juarez pitched 10 innings, and Macha the remaining nine.
“We’ve talked about this the past couple weeks,” Ford said. “She has found her rhythm. She’s pitched great games. Her off-speed is working. Her down ball is breaking hard. She’s just done a really great job.”
Macha’s status in her senior season is not just a source of pride for the Sun Devils. She’s something of a local hero and Arizona high school softball legend. Macha was the winning pitcher for Red Mountain High School, about 15 miles east of ASU’s Farrington Stadium, in four consecutive Arizona big school softball championship games, played at Farrington. The 2013 Mountain Lions team was recognized as national champion.
The key back then was Macha’s power. Though she stands a rail-thin 5 feet 6, she generates tremendous power through the whip of her motion. You’d never know it to look at her, but she touches mid-70s mph with her fastball and regularly hits 70-71 with it. High school kids didn’t stand a chance.
But in college? It’s a different story. So the out pitch became her changeup, which drops down to about 54. The contrast has been known to make hitters look silly at times.
And as long as her drop ball is dropping, Macha makes for a great contrast to riseballer Juarez.
Lately, it’s been dropping a lot. Ford says that contrast makes the duo a preparation nightmare for other teams.
The contrast extends to their personalities in the circle.
“Bre’s a competitor, and she’s crazy on the mound,” sophomore shortstop Jade Gortarez said. “She’s a lot like me, so we get along great. And then, G’s just the opposite. She just does her own thing in the circle, and we’re just there having her back, supporting her at all times.”
Though one might suspect that there might be some hard feelings with the senior Macha being pushed aside a bit for the sophomore Juarez to get the ball more often, it’s not the case.
“At the beginning of the year, I even said, like single handedly Giselle Juarez is our ticket to a national championship, and I said that from Day One,” Macha said. “So I just think it goes to show the confidence that our entire pitching staff, our entire team has in her.”
For Juarez’s part, she has confidence in and relies upon Macha.
“I can’t do it without her,” Juarez said. “I mean, she does have my back, and I have complete faith in that and all our staff. I love her. I love the way our relationship has grown. We have complete faith in one another. We’re still competing for the same spot, and I don’t think many staffs have that to where they can compete against each other, but still want the best for each other.”
And since no one can get along with just one pitcher all season anymore, the two have proven to be great partners.
“I think it’s fun because we’re polar opposites in the way we pitch,” Juarez said. “I came out to her when I found out she was going in. I said, ‘You just got to have my back.’ “
Said Macha: “The same thing happened with the Cal series (first conference road series). We would both go up to one another saying ‘I have your back, I have your back. It’s going to be a long season.’ We have grown with our relationship, and it’s only going to grow from here.”