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Scouting report: UCLA softball vs. Utah

By Sam Lieberman

April 27, 2023 3:15 p.m.

This post was updated April 27 at 10:33 p.m.

No. 2 UCLA softball (44-4, 18-3 Pac-12) will play its final conference series of the regular season when it hits the road to face No. 23 Utah (31-10,12-6). The Bruins clinched a share of the Pac-12 regular-season title Sunday and need one more win to secure the title outright. Utah still controls its own destiny but will need to win its next six games, including sweeping UCLA, to clinch a share of its first ever Pac-12 title. Here is this week’s scouting report from softball contributor Sam Lieberman – whom you can catch eating dinner at Bruin Plate when he isn’t reporting.

Utah Personnel:

Position Player to Watch: INF Aliya Belarde
Pitcher to Watch: LHP Mariah Lopez
X-Factor: RHP Sydney Sandez

Utah Statistics:

Batting Average: .330 (No. 8 nationally, No. 3 Pac-12)
Earned Run Average: 2.65 (No. 61 nationally, No. 4 Pac-12)

Fielding Percentage: .962 (No. 134 nationally, No. 7 Pac-12)

Utah is having its best season since 2017, the last time it qualified for the NCAA tournament.

That season, the Utes, led by two-time Pac-12 Player of the Year Hannah Flippen, went 37-16 before losing in the super regionals to Washington, finishing one win shy of the Women’s College World Series.

Now, Utah is clinging on to a chance for its first ever Pac-12 title. The Utes were 2.5 games back of the first-place Bruins heading into last weekend but now sit 4.5 games back after dropping two out of three to Washington.

Still, Utah is the only team with a chance to catch up to UCLA and needs to win its next six straight Pac-12 games against UCLA and Oregon to do so.

UCLA is the last team to receive a bye week in the conference schedule, allowing it to have played three more games than almost all Pac-12 foes thus far in the season. If the Utes sweep the Bruins, the latter will then rely on Oregon to beat Utah once to secure the outright regular-season title.

However, Utah is running into one of the hottest teams in the country in UCLA. The Bruins have won 17 in a row and 14 straight in Pac-12 play while also having won all seven of their conference series this season thus far.

The Utes have played well at home this season, touting a 9-1 record in Salt Lake City. Two weeks ago, Utah swept then-No. 5 Stanford, so it’s not implausible for the Utes to win three straight games against another top-five opponent.

To do so, they will need both their aces, junior Mariah Lopez and graduate student Sydney Sandez, to shut down UCLA’s high-octane offense.

Lopez ranks third in the Pac-12 in strikeouts and seventh in opposing batting average, leading the team in innings pitched with 120.2 as a left-hander.

The right-handed Sandez has also been effective, posting a 2.47 ERA and 72 strikeouts across 93.2 innings of work.

Infielder Aliya Belarde and utility Ellessa Bonstrom are the leading performers for Utah’s offense this season. Belarde is batting .435, ranking second in the Pac-12 behind UCLA’s redshirt junior utility Maya Brady, while Bonstrom leads the Utes with nine home runs and 47 RBIs this season.

Both players are in the top six in the conference in on-base percentage, each posting an OBP over .490.

The Bruins’ pitching staff should also expect tough at-bats from Haley Denning, Sophie Jacquez, Julia Jimenez, Abby Dayton and Shelbi Ortiz, all of whom are batting over .350.

Denning leads the conference in stolen bases with 27, and the team has 88 in total, making the Utes 18th in the nation in stolen bases per game with 2.15.

In many ways, Utah’s roster is built similar to Arizona’s – with lots of batters who hit for average – but with a little less power and a lot more speed. The Bruins did a good job of limiting the Wildcats’ offense when they played two weeks ago, and they hope to do the same against the Utes.

Since 1999, UCLA has dominated competition against Utah, going 28-6 in that span. However, the Utes managed to sweep the Bruins back in 2017 and will need to bring their A-game if they want to repeat history this weekend.

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