Senior pitcher Ally Carda threw her arms up and put her hands behind her head, as her chin sunk to her chest. There was no need to see the ball fly over the left field wall. Carda’s reaction told the whole story.
It was an appropriate finish to what was an explosive series, as the Arizona State Sun Devils took Carda deep for a walk-off home run in the rubber match Saturday. After succumbing to No. 24 Arizona State (34-20, 12-11 Pac-12) on Thursday, No. 6 UCLA (45-10, 19-5) split its next two games against its Pac-12 foe, ultimately losing the series 2-1 after having won four series in a row.
The matchup wasn’t short of offensive fireworks, as the two teams combined to blast 15 home runs in their final two contests. Sophomore shortstop Delaney Spaulding, who had two home runs herself this weekend, attributed the outburst from the plate to a revitalized focus from the team in practice.
“Our practices have been offensive based and I think that’s helped a lot,” Spaulding said. “I think that we’ll take that into account for how well we were hitting the ball this weekend.”
In the final game of the series on Sunday, UCLA burst out to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first inning, thanks to a three-run home run by senior catcher Stephany LaRosa.
The Bruins erupted further in the second inning as junior center fielder Allexis Bennett smacked in two runs with a double off the wall. After ASU elected to intentionally walk LaRosa, freshman utility player Maddy Jelenicki crushed a ball over the middle of the plate for a grand slam and extended UCLA’s lead to 9-1.
It was at this juncture that ASU coach Craig Nicholson decided to replace starting pitcher Dale Ryndak with Alexis Cooper.
The Sun Devils’ bats finally started to pop in the bottom of the third, with outfielders Jennifer Soria and Sierra Rodriguez both knocking in home runs in the inning to help pull their team to only a 9-6 deficit.
“(ASU) had been swinging all weekend. They were just coming out hacking,” said freshman utility player Kylee Perez. “I don’t think anything really changed for them. They just got their sticks going.”
A home run by second baseman ASU’s Nikki Girard in the fifth brought the Sun Devils within one run of the Bruins’ score.
Just as it looked like the Sun Devils would take control, sophomore outfielder Gabrielle Maurice led off the sixth inning with a solo home run to extend the Bruins’ lead to 10-8, which was the only run Cooper would concede on the day.
“We were able to get to the first two pitchers in the first two days, but then they brought in a pitcher that we hadn’t seen,” said coach Kelly Inouye-Perez. “I’ll be honest with you, we didn’t do a great job of making an adjustment as quickly as we’d like.”
The Bruins headed into the bottom of the seventh with the lead and their ace, Carda, on the mound. After getting the leadoff batter to pop up, Carda walked two of the next three batters with the batter of the winning run coming up to the plate. It was then that Arizona State’s Soria caught hold of a pitch over the plate, and came through with a walk-off home run, giving the Sun Devils the 11-10 victory.
“Bottom line, we scored nine runs in the first two innings. We didn’t score after the second inning until the fifth or the sixth inning,” Spaulding said. “We need to maintain (our scoring) throughout the game.”
The defeat officially squashed any hopes the Bruins had for a share of the Pac-12 title with the Oregon Ducks.
The second game of the series the previous day was not nearly as competitive.
The Bruins got the scoring started immediately as Spaulding led off the contest with a home run, and the team never relinquished the lead, winning the game 11-5.
Despite Carda’s mishap in the final game, Inouye-Perez said she is confident that the team’s star pitcher, and 2014 Pac-12 Player of the Year, will bounce back.
“I told her, straight up, I believe she’s the best pitcher in the country. … This team will fight for her, and she’s got to be able to fight for the team,” Inouye-Perez said, “But at the end of the day, she’s better than that. I believe she’s better than that.”
Next stop: postseason
On Sunday, the NCAA Tournament bracket was released, and UCLA was given the No. 7 overall seed. The Bruins will host a double-elimination regional round this weekend at Easton Stadium. The other teams in the regional are Texas and San Diego State. UCLA’s first game of the regional will be against Cal State Northridge on Friday at 5:30 p.m.