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First place up for grabs when No. 12 Arizona State softball hosts No. 4 UCLA this weekend

May 5, 2022

The top two softball teams in the Pac-12 will battle in Tempe this weekend when the first-place Arizona State Sun Devils (35-7, 16-2 Pac-12) host the second-place UCLA Bruins (39-6, 15-3) at Farrington Stadium.

Holding a one-game lead with two series left, the No. 12-ranked Sun Devils can clinch the Pac-12 title with a sweep of the No. 4-ranked Bruins, who have won the conference the last two times a champion was crowned.

All three games of the series will be televised on Pac-12 Network. Tracy Warren will be on the call with two-time All-American pitcher Kenzie Fowler.

With Fowler's help, we came up with five storylines to keep an eye on this weekend.

'The clash of the bats versus the clash of the arms'

Led by the upperclassman trio of Megan Faraimo, Holly Azevedo and Lauren Shaw, the Bruins lead the Pac-12 in ERA (1.26) and strikeouts (389), and have only surrendered 24 homers all season, tied with Stanford for the fewest in the conference.

ASU, meanwhile, boasts a deep lineup that averages eight runs per game in Pac-12 play, leads the league in long balls (84) and, well, pretty much every other major statistical category. 

That means something will have to give at Farrington Stadium, where hitters usually have the upperhand because of the short fences, and warm, thin desert air.

"It's definitely going to be the clash of the bats versus the clash of the arms," Fowler said.

"UCLA has three different looks that they have relied on all season long. Even Lauren Shaw has had really quality innings for them, a different look as a lefty. Holly Azevedo has emerged as an ace too, or at least a 1A, 1B situation for them.

"And then Megan has lived up to the expectations, which is a tough thing to do because there were a ton of expectations on her, but I think she's lived up to that as well as she could have. I feel like the pitching has almost done too much for UCLA this season and has really been the forefront of their success. But yeah, there's not a lot of room for error when you're pitching to a potent offense in the state of Arizona because the ball flies."

UCLA finding its footing offensively

While the Bruins have been stellar in the circle, their offense has been inconsistent. They rank third in the Pac-12 in scoring, but plated two runs or fewer in all three games against Utah last weekend, including an 8-0 shutout loss in the series finale, a rare instance where the Bruins' pitching couldn't keep them in the game.

Arizona State has one of the most improved pitching staffs in the country, but is still middle-of-the-Pac in ERA. Can the Bruin bats come alive?

"Offensively, they definitely need to have their pitchers' backs, and what's scary about them is the talent is still there," Fowler said. "They've had different pieces at different times struggle a little bit with injuries...so they just haven't had that consistent lineup weekend in and weekend out that I think helps an offense get into rhythm. And so it'll be interesting to see what the lineup looks like for this weekend because I think that's a big part to get that rhythm, get that flow."

Two of the Pac-12's top freshmen

ASU's Cydney Sanders is likely the frontrunner for Pac-12 Freshman of the Year right now, ranking second in the conference in batting average (.434) and RBI (53) while being tied for third in homers (17).

But UCLA's Savannah Pola is in the conversation as well, hitting .336 with five homers, 36 RBI and 13 doubles, the second-most in the Pac-12 and most among freshmen.

"They've been producing all season long, and they do it in completely different ways," Fowler said. "They're both power hitters but look completely different, and I think it's really great for young girls out there to see different bodies producing the way that they have. You have Cydney Sanders, who's been in the three-hole almost all season long and a power hitter from the right side. Her average is through the roof, which is so impressive for a power hitter.

"And then you have Savannah Pola, who's smaller in stature but still packs a punch on the other side of the box — and both are getting it done at the top of the lineup for the best offenses in the Pac-12."

ASU and Coach Trisha Ford making a statement

The Sun Devils have not won the Pac-12 since 2011, the same year they won the Women's College World Series under former head coach Clint Myers. Fowler says ending that decade-long conference-title drought would be a "huge statement" for head coach Trisha Ford and her program.

"I think she deserves all the success that she's getting," Fowler said. "She's one of the best coaches and I've been so lucky to watch her take this program and make it her own. It's taken some time, as we all know it does in college athletics, but you can really tell that she's cultivating something special in Tempe.

"And I think it would be huge for, of course, the program, but also for the conference. It's been over a decade since they've been in the mix at the top and it shows the depth across the board with different programs winning the Pac-12 the last couple of seasons."

Of course, the Bruins aren't about to give up the crown without a fight. This is a squad that is well-equipped to win high-stakes games, having made six straight trips to the Women's College World Series including the 2019 title run.

"Experience matters a ton, especially as you are nearing the end of the season because the physical aspects can be draining, to be quite honest," Fowler said. "You're tired, you're trying to get through some stuff, maybe you're banged up a little bit, so it turns from a physical game to a mental game. And whoever is going to come in, step on that field, temperatures are going to be warm, it's going to be fiery all the way around."

Don't forget the postseason implications!

A top-5 team by virtually every metric, UCLA is already in terrific shape to earn one of those coveted top-8 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, which would give it the right to host the regional and super regional rounds of the postseason.

ASU still has some work to do. The Sun Devils enter the weekend at No. 12 in the NFCA Coaches Poll, No. 11 in the D1Softball poll and No. 14 in RPI.

A series win over the Bruins should secure their spot in the top 8, yes, but so could just being competitive.

"It's a luxury because you have iron sharpening iron," Fowler said. "It's the two best teams right now going at it, and whoever comes out on top should absolutely be rewarded."

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Series schedule

Friday, May 6

  • 5 p.m. PT / 6 p.m. MT on Pac-12 Network and the Pac-12 Now app

Saturday, May 7

  • 4 p.m. PT / 5 p.m. MT on Pac-12 Network and the Pac-12 Now app

Sunday, May 8

  • 12 p.m. PT / 1 p.m. MT on Pac-12 Network and the Pac-12 Now app