By Tom Blodgett
Photos courtesy Sun Devil Athletics
If softball fans feel liked they missed something by not being that familiar with Arizona State left-hander Giselle Juarez – or “G,” as she goes by – they’re not alone.
“She’s a good pitcher,” Washington coach Heather Tarr said. “(We had) not much information off her. We didn’t face her much last year. We’ll see (if she emerges as one of the Pac-12 Conference’s top pitchers). She had a great series.”
Certainly, she did. Juarez shut out the top-ranked Huskies twice in three days, the only two losses Washington has suffered in its 29-2 start, which vaulted it to the top of the USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association and ESPN/USA Softball polls.
The first was a three-hitter with 11 strikeouts Saturday, a gem of a game that snapped Washington’s 28-game win streak to start the season. That was the more dominant of the two performances, but perhaps the more impressive game was Monday when she gave up four hits and struck out eight, despite facing that potent Washington lineup for a second time in three days.
“I made adjustments quicker than they did so I think that was the biggest thing when facing them for a second time,” Juarez said Monday. “They know I have a rise ball, So I think my biggest thing is making it a start a little bit lower, getting them to guess at pitches, not knowing what I’m going to throw, keeping them off guard.”
A new pitch this season in her repertoire this season, an off-speed pitch, was helpful in that regard. She hadn’t thrown in much Saturday but used it to great effect Monday.
“Even if it was in the dirt or if it was a strike, it kept them off balance because they weren’t expecting it,” Juarez said.
The changeup isn’t all that has helped Juarez make a leap forward this season. She’s worked with ASU coach Trisha Ford on spinning her pitches more and worrying less about an umpire’s strike zone or who the batter is that she’s facing, focusing instead on her game.
She also gained experience and confidence playing on the U.S. Women’s Junior National Team last summer in the World Cup of Softball.
Most of all, she’s healthy. Juarez was effectively the Sun Devils’ No. 3 pitcher last season as a hip problem nagged at her. She finished the season with a 6-7 record, a 2.79 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 90 1/3 innings.
But now that she’s healthy and stronger, she’s getting the chance to step up – and responding in a big way. She gave up six earned runs to Tennessee in the season opener – a game that a couple balls left up turned into two homers worth five runs. Since then, however, she’s given up only four earned runs– and none in the past 54 innings pitched, a span of eight-plus games. Seven have been complete-game shutouts.
All that has shrunk her ERA from 10.80 after the Tennessee game to 0.84, which well explains her 11-1 record thus far. Taking out Tennessee, it’s 11-0 and a 0.36 ERA.
She also leads the team with 83 innings pitched, and though it’s a little fewer than last season’s total, she’s zoomed past her team-leading strikeout total from 2017. She has 130 thus far.
It probably shouldn’t be that big a surprise that a healthy Juarez is capable of this. She was, after all, ranked as the nation’s No. 46 recruit by FloSports coming out of nearby Glendale’s Mountain Ridge High School. And she was good enough to be selected for the junior national team last summer.
“G’s healthy, and so she’s going to throw,” Ford said. “I mean, that’s why she’s here. That’s why we brought her here. She’s going to throw a lot of innings. That’s a good team (Washington) that she, for 14 innings, shut out.”
Juarez’s effectiveness starts with the fact that she’s a 6-foot left-hander, making her tough to face from the start, Ford said. But much of that effectiveness also comes from her electric stuff. The unpredictability of it makes her tough for opponents to prepare for.
“There’s not one ball that is straight,” Ford said. “She can throw her rise at different levels. She’s effectively wild. She has a good off-speed this year, which she didn’t have last year. She really does a good job of blending her pitches, so all of her pitches come out of the chute looking the same and then they split.”
And when they do break, they break in a funky way, if you listen to her teammates, who sometimes complained in the fall about having to face her in practice. An unsympathetic Ford told them be glad she was on their side.
“Her ball moves differently than any other pitcher I’ve ever caught,” sophomore catcher Maddi Hackbarth said. “So going in every game, each game, even at practice during bullpens, (I tell her) go through your zone. I’ll be there to catch it. (Don’t) force the ball into spots, just let it spin and let it do its thing.”
Hackbarth said that movement means Juarez doesn’t always have to hit her spots to be effective. The spin can be enough.
“It’s really not really a miss,” Hackbarth said. “It’s a strike because the ball is moving. It’s hard to tell a hitter to go in there. They’re always going to be guessing.”
And from the other end, junior center fielder Morgan Howe is having even more fun watching it – maybe because she doesn’t have to catch it.
“It’s a great view from center. seeing everything go like this,” Howe said, making a snaking motion with her hand. “It’s awesome. Sometimes. not going to lie, batters are like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m on the next one.’ I’m like, ‘Nah, watch this one.’ … I love playing behind G.”
Apparently so does the rest of the defense.
ASU has given up 17 unearned runs this season – four errors and five unearned runs behind Bre Macha were the biggest factor in ASU’s 7-0 loss Sunday to Washington — but none behind Juarez.
In fact, the defense was stellar in Juarez’s two games. On Saturday, sophomore right fielder Kindi Hackbarth threw out a runner trying to advance from first from third on a single. Monday, Maddi Hackbarth, Kindi’s twin sister, threw out Washington’s Trysten Melhart attempting to steal second to complete a big strike-‘em-out, throw-‘em-out double play in the sixth inning; freshman first baseman Danielle Gibson snagged a hard line drive down the first base line; and junior Taylor Becerra made a spectacular foul territory catch, leaping to snare it over some dugout netting.
“I love it,” Becerra said about playing behind Juarez. “She’s so fierce, and she knows that she’s good, so it’s nice having a pitcher who’s confident.”
Naturally, Juarez appreciates the momentum these plays bring. She gives out hugs in the dugout after innings when the defense has stepped up.
“It’s funny because me and Gibby (Gibson) just talked about that,” Juarez said of one such play. “She was like, ‘Careful, she’s seeing the change.’ And I was like, whatever, you just be ready. And it came right to her. So I think it’s funny when these things happen, and I love that they made such great plays. That was huge.”
Of course, with all the strikeouts Juarez has been recording, Ford notes the defense isn’t called upon to make as many plays during the course of the game. And Howe enjoys that, too.
“Me and Chili (freshman left fielder Nichole Chilson) joke about it all the time,” Howe said. “We’re like, ‘All right, G, we’re just going to hang out in the dugout. We’re just standing out there at this point. You can do your thing.’ But it’s great, knowing that nobody’s going to touch the ball.”
If a lot of fans didn’t know about Juarez before, they’re learning now. Two shutouts against the No. 1 team in the country will do that. If there is any element of surprise to Juarez’s success, it’s gone now.
But that’s fine with Juarez, who indicated she’s OK with teams aiming at her and the 24-4 Sun Devils, who rose to No. 12 in the USA Today/NFCA poll before Monday’s win.
“You’ve got to embrace this right now,” Ford said. “She’s got a big target now, but G’s a competitor. G wants the ball, so you’ve got to love and relish in that feel.”