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UCLA Opens against Auburn in the 2016 Women's College World Series

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The Bruins are back in the Women's College World Series after sweeping a doubleheader against the Oregon Ducks on Sunday. UCLA's opening day opponent is the Auburn Tigers, the team that eliminated the Bruins from the competition last year.

@BCAASoftball

2016 NCAA Women's College World Series, Day 1

#14 UCLA Softball (40-14-1)

Opponent: #5 Auburn (54-10)

When: 11:30 AM PDT, Thursday, June 2, 2016

Where: ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, Oklahoma City, OK

Audio: None

Video: ESPN

Live StatsGameTracker

UCLA Official Preview | UCLA Game Notes

2016 NCAA WCWS Central2016 WCWS Bracket

The Bruins are back in the Women's College World Series after an improbable doubleheader sweep of the fourth-rnaked Oregon Ducks on Sunday. UCLA needed late game heroics from Gabrielle Maurice in the opener to take the game to extra innings, and relied on superb pitching to eke out a pair of 2-1 wins.

Frankly, I didn't expect to see the Bruins in Oklahoma City this season. Between the loss of freshman pitcher Rachel Garcia as she recovers from major knee surgery and the absence of injury-plagued hurler Paige McDuffee for the first half of the 2016 campaign, the Bruins didn't appear to have enough top-end pitching to be a title contender.

It would be a stretch to say that UCLA's pitching has improved enough in the postseason to be the team's strength, but the staff's ERA has been 1.30 runs per game lower in the NCAA Tournament. That said, the Bruins' postseason ERA is 28th out of 64 teams--not an indication of an elite pitching staff. As a point of comparison, Auburn's pitching staff ranks 12th in postseason ERA.

So what has been the Bruins' forte in the postseason?

It certainly hasn't been fielding. UCLA ranks 52nd in postseason fielding percentage among the 64 teams that qualified for the tourney. Surprisingly, it hasn't been batting either. In spite of the Bruins superior hitting in the regular season, UCLA's postseason batting average is just .223 (39th), which is more than 100 points lower than its regular season average.

If at this point you're wondering how the Bruins managed to get to the 2016 Women's College World Series, there's a simple answer: home runs. In six tournament games, UCLA has blasted nine home runs, the second most among tournament teams.

The Bruins' power surge is primarily responsible for propelling them to the 2016 WCWS, but it's not the only factor. As I mentioned at the outset, the pitching has been better, and in particular, it's been at its best in tight games. And although UCLA's fielding has been shaky, UCLA continues to benefit from a great double play combo in shortstop Delaney Spaulding and second baseman Kylee Perez.

It's also true that the Bruins have shown tremendous poise in the postseason. Four of their five tournament victories have been by a one-run margin, and in each of those games, the Bruins have needed timely hitting and clutch pitching performances. The Bruins has proven time after time that they can't be counted out.

UCLA's opening day opponent in the 2016 Women's College World Series is the team that eliminated it from the competition last season: Auburn. It was a particularly painful defeat--a 11-10 loss in 10 innings in a game that featured a few questionable tactical decisions by Coach Inouye-Perez. Although UCLA Athletics is playing up the "rematch" aspect of the game, it's not really a rematch--both teams are substantially different from the teams that met last season.

There's no doubt that the Bruins face a big challenge today. Auburn may not have the elite pitching of Oregon, but the Tigers have a lot of pop in the heart of their batting order. Junior Kasey Cooper leads the way with a .425 batting average and 19 home runs. Senior Emily Carosone is nearly as dangerous with a .405 average and 12 homers. Senior Jade Rhodes may be hitting "just" .335, but her 17 home runs are second most on the team. Also, although senior Tiffany Howard isn't a power threat, her .392 batting average and her speed on the base paths make her very valuable at the top of the lineup.

Sophomore Kaylee Carlson is likely to start in the circle for the Tigers today based on her experience. Carlson sports a 2.11 ERA, and has 17 wins and only 2 losses in 2016. Makayla Martin has been equally tough this season (14-3, 1.70 ERA), but as a freshman, she's never started in the postseason. Senior Rachel Waters has been used primarily in relief this season, and she may very well be the preferred option in late game situations. She's been very effective in that role this year as her 1.54 ERA and 10-3 record attest.

There's no doubt that UCLA enters today's game as an underdog, but as the Bruins proved against the Ducks in Eugene last weekend, it would be a huge mistake to count them out. Their postseason journey hasn't been easy so far, but unlike 56 other teams that began the journey with them, the Bruins are still playing.

Go BRUINS!