Traditionally labeled as the premier matchup in Division I softball, this year’s series between UCLA and Arizona lived up to its billing.
Occupying second and third place, respectively, in the Pac-12 entering the weekend, the No. 15 Bruins (30-13-1, 11-5-1 Pac-12) and No. 17 Wildcats (32-14, 9-6) went blow for blow throughout the series.
“It was an epic battle,” said coach Kelly Inouye-Perez.
After dominating Stanford and Oregon State earlier in the season, UCLA’s pitchers struggled against Arizona.
In Saturday’s opener, sophomore Johanna Grauer started in the circle, but gave up six runs on nine hits.
Although the Wildcats scored early, the Bruins’ offense managed to keep pace.
With the game tied in the top of the sixth, junior shortstop Delaney Spaulding hit her third grand slam of the season to secure the 8-6 win for UCLA.
“To have a come from behind victory like that really was big for us,” Inouye-Perez said. “It built a lot of momentum moving into Sunday.”
Although the ball continued to fly around the yard for both teams, the Bruins found themselves trailing the Wildcats most of the second game.
UCLA nearly took the lead in the top of the fifth after Spaulding hit a two run-homer, her second of the series, to pull the team within one run of its conference rival.
Grauer would surrender three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning as the Wildcats went on to take the second game 8-4 and even the series at a one apiece.
In Monday’s rubber match, Arizona dominated early on.
Grauer made her second start of the series, but was quickly pulled for sophomore Selina Ta’amilo after allowing one run in a third of inning pitched.
Ta’amilo would allow three more runs to score over the first two innings but then settled down, holding Arizona scoreless in the third and fourth innings.
“I had some missed pitches and I knew that you can’t make those mistakes against Arizona,” said Ta’amilo. “I just recognized that and moved forward.”
UCLA’s offense, which carried the team through the first two games, appeared stagnant over the first four innings of the game, scoring only one run on four hits.
Trailing 4-1 in the top of the fifth inning, the Bruins came roaring back.
Home runs by senior third baseman Mysha Sataraka, sophomore catcher Madeline Jelenicki and freshman outfielder Paige Halstead gave UCLA a 6-4 lead.
“We had a plan and we stuck to the plan,” Halstead said. “It paid off.”
The Wildcats responded with a big inning of their own behind senior third baseman Lauren Young, who homered off a Ta’amilo pitch to give the home team a 7-6 lead.
In the top of the sixth, Spaulding doubled to drive in two more runs and put the team back on top 8-7.
Grauer re-entered the game in the bottom of the sixth and kept the Wildcats off the scoreboard over the next two innings to secure the win and series victory for the Bruins.
“It’s big time for us here in the second half of Pac-12 and builds a lot of confidence moving into the next series,” Inouye-Perez said.
Neck and neck with Arizona in the Pac-12 standings coming into this series, UCLA now has some breathing room.