#10 UCLA Softball (39-13, 13-8)
Opponent: #22 Arizona State (30-17, 9-12)
When: 6:00 PM PT, Thursday, May 11, 2017
Where: Alberta B. Farrington Softball Stadium. Tempe, AZ
Video: Pac-12 Network
Live Stats: Arizona State StatBroadcast
It's the final week of the regular season and the Bruins are heading to Tempe for a three-game series against the 22nd-ranked Sun Devils.
After winning two out of three against Arizona last weekend, UCLA crept back into the top-10 of the NFCA Coaches Poll, moving up two spots to land at #10. The Pac-12 continues to dominate the top end of the poll with #3 Oregon, #5 Arizona, #8 Washington, and UCLA all in the top-10. The 13th-ranked Utes aren't far behind, and probably deserve to be ranked higher based on what I've seen of them.
The fact that Arizona State is under .500 in conference play and currently occupies sixth-place in the Pac-12 says more about the quality and depth of the conference than it does about the Sun Devils. ASU has one of the conference's best pitching staffs, and the Sun Devils are one of just four Pac-12 teams with 50+ homers this year.
The Sun Devils are also a patient bunch at the plate, and they do a good job of bunching runs without relying on a flurry of hits. Unfortunately, that aligns with one of the Bruins' weaknesses: the tendency to concede runs in handfuls.
In short, Arizona State is a quality opponent--exactly the kind of opponent the Bruins will have to defeat to advance to the second week of the postseason.
UCLA started its series with Arizona on a high with a five inning, mercy rule 8-0 win. The result in game 2 looked much the same on the scoreboard--a 6-0 victory for the Bruins--even though the performance was a notch below what they produced in game 1. At that point, UCLA had extended its winning streak to 10 games, and still had an outside shot at catching Arizona for a share of the conference title.
Then Senior Day arrived, and Coach Inouye-Perez opted to start senior Paige McDuffee in the circle. Half an inning later, the Bruins trailed 4-0, and as the 7-2 final score indicates, UCLA never got back into the contest.
Although I've been critical of some of Coach KIP's in-game tactics this season, I won't criticize her for the priorities she sets for the program and and student-athletes. However, it's important to acknowledge that one of the consequences of the loss is that the Bruins realistically won't finish higher than third, and fourth- or fifth-place are the more likely finishing positions for UCLA at the end of the weekend.
Therefore, in terms of what's at stake for the Bruins in Tempe, it comes down to seeding for the NCAA Tournament. UCLA would dearly love to host a regional, but that possibility could be in jeopardy if UCLA doesn't win at least one game against ASU.
I expect Rachel Garcia to start for the Bruins this evening. Garcia has enjoyed a splendid freshman campaign, so it comes as no surprise that she has been named a finalist for the NFCA Freshman of the Year award.
Garcia has become the ace of the staff with her team-leading 1.86 ERA, and she's contributing at the plate too with a .319 batting average. If the Bruins are going to make it back to the Women's College World Series this year, it's very likely that Garcia will need to play a big role in the postseason.