Why UCLA's dramatic sweep of Arizona State could alter the postseason picture
What went down in the 12th week of college softball? The aim each week is to bring you five stories that defined the week in college softball or help navigate the long road to Oklahoma City and the Women's College World Series.
1. UCLA saves its best for last
The chance to hit in the bottom of the seventh inning isn't near the top of the list of the reasons it's advantageous to play at home in the NCAA tournament. By NCAA rule, the host isn't always the home team on the scoreboard in the postseason. That advantage rotates.
But it sure helped No. 13 UCLA's chances of hosting a regional that it was the home team this weekend against Arizona State. The Bruins made full use of the bottom of the seventh inning, coming up with the kind of late-game drama usually reserved for their city's movie industry.
Trailing 6-3 entering the bottom of the seventh inning of the series opener, UCLA scored five runs in its final turn and claimed a walk-off win on Mysha Sataraka's three-run home run.
Trailing 5-0 entering the bottom of the seventh inning of the middle game of the series, having managed just two hits in the first six innings, UCLA scored six runs in its final turn at the plate and claimed a walk-off win on Gabrielle Maurice's three-run home run.
Credit the Bruins for even remembering to go back to their defensive positions for the second inning after they flipped the script and scored four runs in the first inning of Sunday's series finale en route to a 9-4 win.
The nature of the sweep is devastating for Arizona State, losers of 12 in a row and squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble. It couldn't have come at a better time for the Bruins. Not part of the NCAA softball committee's initial top 10 ranking and tenuously positioned at No. 16 in the most recent RPI, UCLA protected its credentials for a national seed as its competition, No. 15 Georgia and No. 18 South Florida notably, dropped games.
It is unlikely that UCLA, seventh in the Pac-12 in ERA, is going to start throwing shutouts. Pitching is a weakness. But to get big days from three different hitters (in addition to Sataraka and Maurice, Madeline Jelenicki hit two home runs in the finale) underscores the lineup's potential. To get those runs in the manner UCLA did suggests a team willing to go down swinging -- or walk off swinging, as the case may be.
2. Texas A&M beats, but shouldn't unseat, No. 1 Florida
It's news any time No. 1 Florida loses. That doesn't always mean anything changes when it happens.
After its first loss on the field this season, the finale of a three-game series at Auburn, Florida didn't shed a first-place vote in the USA Softball Top 25 and retained the No. 1 ranking. After its second and third losses, which came during a series at Alabama, it shed 14 of 19 first-place votes and fell to No. 3 in the next week's poll (it quickly regained the top spot a week later).
Well, Florida lost again, a 6-4 decision in Sunday's finale of a three-game series at No. 22 Texas A&M that marked the most runs allowed by the Gators this season. And when the new poll comes out Tuesday, it should still have same team at the top.
The RPI is a flawed measurement, but it isn't wholly without merit. Florida now has a 20-4 record against teams in the RPI top 25. No other team has more than 13 such wins. In fact, only three teams in the past three seasons had more than 14 such wins by this point in the season: Florida in 2014, Florida in 2015 and Florida in 2016. Theirs remains the best season this time around.
That said, the hottest team in the nation's best conference isn't the No. 1 team. It isn't even one of the four teams likely to earn a bye in the first round of the SEC tournament. Few teams are playing better than No. 16 Missouri, which swept Mississippi State a week after doing the same to Texas A&M. It was a full weekend for Paige Lowary, who won the opener with a complete game, saved the middle game with two innings of scoreless relief and won the finale with six innings of long relief. Missouri's pitching depth, while obviously less consistent than Florida's, makes for an intriguing postseason storyline.
3. James Madison's loss is Kayla Caruso's gain
Only eight Division I teams play softball into June, which means barring the improbable run of all improbable runs, this will be the final month of Elon senior Kayla Caruso's college career.
So she presumably didn't mind first squeezing every pitch possible out of April, with a little help from her teammates.
Saturday brought good and bad news for James Madison. It is never easy to guess what the selection committee will make of a mid-major team's credentials, so proof that the current committee viewed the Dukes in a favorable light, ranking them sixth, was as revealing as anything in Saturday's top 10. But that ranking was set before the Dukes lost 5-4 to Elon in a 15-inning game in which seven of the nine runs were scored in extra innings. The loss hurts its seeding aspirations, especially as No. 10 Washington won a series, No. 6 Florida State and Missouri dominated and No. 12 Tennessee entered the picture by outscoring No. 3 Auburn 22-3 in two run-rule wins.
In the big picture, the result is all about James Madison and damage to its postseason seeding.
Yet the more compelling picture in the moment is of the senior who pitched all 15 innings for Elon, threw 197 pitches and twice in extra innings had to wonder if all that effort would go for naught.
Caruso, who lost on a walk-off walk after she pitched 9 2/3 innings of relief in her previous appearance a week earlier, limited James Madison to one run in the first nine innings in Saturday's series opener. Yet after giving up a two-run home-run in the top of the 10th inning, she appeared headed for another tough-luck loss. Then Elon rallied to tie the game on Erica Serafini's two-run single in the bottom of the inning. James Madison took the lead again two innings later, only for Hannah Olson to lead off the bottom of the 12th with a tying home run.
After three more scoreless innings from Caruso, including back-to-back strikeouts with runners on second and third in the 13th inning, Kara Shutt's walk-off hit won it for Elon in the 15th inning.
Tied for second in the CAA, Elon will hope its season highlight is still to come in the conference tournament. Caruso will hope to extend her season. But the 15 innings she pitched Saturday against a World Series contender are the definition of leaving it all on the field.
4. Oregon breezes closer to Pac-12 history
Unlike some of the events mentioned thus far, there was very little drama in No. 5 Oregon's weekend sweep of No. 17 Arizona. Which is exactly the way the Ducks would want it as May arrives.
If it's possible to quietly cruise toward a fourth consecutive Pac-12 title, Oregon has done so. That may be the lack of a clear title race -- Oregon swept Washington in March, while UCLA was slow out of the gates. It may also be because Oregon's known quantity, All-American ace Cheridan Hawkins, went through ups and downs while hitters like Nikki Udria and Koral Costa led the way. Or it could be because we like new and shiny, and after three conferences titles and corresponding disappointment in Oklahoma City, we take the Ducks for granted.
Put it this way. While the Ducks (now 38-6) were fifth in last week's USA Softball Top 25, they have yet to receive a first-place vote in a season in which 10 teams already have.
But in putting together three consecutive shutouts for the first time this season, two by Hawkins and one by freshman Megan Kleist, are they peaking at the right time? Hawkins allowed just two hits in 12 innings and struck out 15 batters. The last numbers makes her the first Pac-12 pitcher since Dallas Escobedo to record 1,000 career strikeouts. She also set the program record for career shutouts in the same weekend her catcher Janelle Lindvall claimed the program RBI record.
Oregon entered the series second nationally in slugging percentage, third in scoring and seventh in on-base percentage. If the pitching is going to look like it did this weekend, watch out.
5. Start, finish and everything in the middle at West Point
A cadet in her first year at the United States Military Academy is accustomed to having a few more things on her plate than everyone else, regardless of what sport she plays. But Army freshman Renee Poirier is pulling double duty like few NCAA softball pitchers in recent memory.
The Patriot League might seem far afield to wander this time of year, but unique is unique.
Thursday, Poirier pitched a complete game the hard way, going an extra inning in Army's 4-3 win against Colgate. It was the freshman's third complete game in nine days and her 10th of the season. Two days later, Poirier came on in relief and pitched a scoreless seventh inning in a 3-2 win against Manhattan for her 10th save of the season.
So what's the big deal? Well, start with that she leads the nation in saves. Even as the idea of bullpens becomes more and more en vogue, championed best by two-time defending champion Florida, Poirier is just the sixth pitcher in the past decade to reach double-digit saves.
But go back to that complete game win against Colgate. The NCAA only offers complete save data beginning with the 2002 season. Poirier is just the second pitcher in that span of 15 seasons to record both double-digit complete games and double-digit saves in the same year.