#10 UCLA Softball (21-5)
Opponent: #20 Utah (18-4)
When: 5:00 PM PT, Friday, March 17, 2017
Where: Easton Stadium, Los Angeles, CA
Video: Pac-12 Networks
Live Stats: UCLA StatBroadcast
Ready or not, the Bruins begin their 2017 Pac-12 season this afternoon against the 20th-ranked Utah Utes. It's the first game in a three-game set versus the Utes, and the importance of starting the conference campaign on the right foot shouldn't be underestimated.
Although the Bruins were selected as title-favorites in the preseason Pac-12 Coaches poll, UCLA currently sits in the 10th spot in the NFCA Coaches poll, behind conference foes Oregon (#3), Arizona (#5), and Washington (#6). In my opinion, that's less a statement about the quality of this season's squad, and more a reflection of the strength of the Pac-12. With seven Pac-12 teams currently ranked in the national top-25, the conference schedule will be brutal, and capturing the Pac-12 title will be an extremely tough challenge.
Even though the Bruins carry a five-game winning streak into today's contest, UCLA wasn't been playing its best softball last week. After a couple of poor pitching performances in the Judi Garman Classic two weeks ago, the Bruins' hurlers bounced back with a good weekend in the Louisville Slugger Invitational against weaker competition, but UCLA's bats went cold, producing a total of just four runs in their final two games. That kind of slump isn't good news heading into Pac-12 play.
Nevertheless, UCLA got the runs it needed to win both games. Against Texas on Sunday with Selina Ta'amilo in the circle, the Bruins fell behind by two runs in the first. UCLA battled back in the bottom of the third when it bunched three hits for two runs. The big hit was a two-run double by Madeline Jelenicki, but the Bruins should have scored more with a runner on third and one out.
UCLA finally grabbed the lead in the bottom of the sixth when freshman Bubba Nickles led off the inning with a solo home run to left center. It was Nickles' fourth round-tripper of the season.
Ta'amilo seemed to grow stronger with each inning, and made quick work of the Longhorns in the seventh to secure UCLA's 21st win of 2017. The complete game victory gives Ta'amilo a perfect 7-0 record heading into Pac-12 play, and her 1.06 leads the staff.
All wins aren't equal, though. As satisfying as it is to put another mark in the win column, the Bruins looked good--not great--last weekend. Questions remain about how Coach Inouye-Perez plans to use her pitching staff, and the extent to which she intends to fall back on small ball tactics with a lineup rich in power hitters and lacking speed on the basepaths.
Utah (18-4) will give the Bruins all they can handle. The Utes currently sport the fourth best ERA in the nation, and they rank 12th in batting average. Utah doesn't have the explosive power of UCLA, though. UCLA is fifth nationally in home runs per game (1.35) while Utah is a distant 130th (0.59 per game). That's why Coach KIP ought to rethink her inclination to play for one run at a time; it's a strategy that doesn't match the skills of her players.
There's a lot at stake for both teams over the next three days. If the Bruins can get their hitting back on track, they should be able to snare an important Pac-12 series win.