Call it déjà vu.
Last season, UCLA softball went into the final series of its regular season against Arizona State with a chance to secure the Pac-12 title and failed.
The stakes are all the same this time around as No. 6 UCLA (44-8, Pac-12 18-3) heads to Tempe, Ariz., to take on No. 24 Arizona State (32-19, 10-10). The Bruins enter the three-game series trailing the first-place Oregon Ducks by one game in the Pac-12 standings. Oregon has a three-game road series against No. 17 Arizona this weekend.
With conference title implications at stake, the Bruins said they would rather not think about the impact this weekend might have on their title chances if they don’t have to.
“We don’t want to count our chickens before they hatch,” said junior catcher/first baseman Brittany Moeai. “We’re really superstitious about talking about certain things because we just want to work hard and let everything fall into play.”
An area to watch for this weekend should be steals.
Offensively, the fleet-footed Bruins head into the matchup second in the Pac-12 with 58 steals, the highest total for the program since 2006. Conversely, the Sun Devils have allowed the third most in the Pac-12 stolen bases with 31.
“We’re always looking to be aggressive. We’ve got a very fast, very athletic team that is capable of taking that extra base,” said coach Kelly Inouye-Perez. “So, absolutely, it is something that is part of our game.”
While most players on the team have to be told to steal or need to wait for the right scenario to run, Inouye-Perez said she allows only a couple of players to go for a straight-up steal.
One of those players is junior centerfielder Allexis Bennett, who leads the team with 17 steals. Bennett admitted that getting on base is her job, first and foremost, but that once she accomplishes that, she’s ready to attack as a base runner.
“It’s an awareness. We’re going to be aware of that and take advantage of the situation,” Bennett said. “We’re going to take everything into account. We’re going to be aggressive, just like we’ve been.”
On the opposite side of the ball, the Bruins face off against the most inactive team on the bases, as the Sun Devils have only stolen 11 on 17 attempts, both conference lows.
Despite Arizona State’s passive stance on base running, UCLA said it cannot afford to overlook any team with runners on base.
“It’s good to know (about stolen bases), and at the same time I gotta keep preparing the way I do for any team, whether they steal 10-for-10, or don’t steal as much,” Moeai said. “I always gotta be prepared because that one time that they might steal, I’m ready for it.”
One thing that won’t replicate itself this time around will be the pitchers for Arizona State, as the team starts two freshmen in the lineup. Despite the unknown factor, Inouye-Perez said she feels a new dynamic will be good for her squad.
“When our girls don’t know, it’s kind of a good thing because they study the game,” Inouye-Perez said. “They really get dialed in and they communicate the game.”