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Arizona softball hits road for key UCLA series

Arizona+softball+utility+player+Hallie+Wilson+%285%29+is+greeted+by+her+teammates+at+home+plate+after+scoring+a+run+during+Arizonas+22-5+win+against+Stanford+at+Hillenbrand+Stadium+on+April+26.
Jesus Barrera

Arizona softball utility player Hallie Wilson (5) is greeted by her teammates at home plate after scoring a run during Arizona’s 22-5 win against Stanford at Hillenbrand Stadium on April 26.

Arizona softball travels to UCLA this weekend to face the Bruins in a crucial three-game series that could help determine the UA’s postseason seeding.

The No. 16 Wildcats (37-12, 12-6 Pac-12 Conference) looked dominant last weekend in a sweep over Pac-12 bottom-feeder Stanford, but No. 7 UCLA (41-8, 15-3) should provide a much tougher challenge.

The Bruins, who sit right above Arizona at second in the Pac-12 standings, lead the conference in ERA and are also one of the best hitting teams in the nation.

“We live for the games that are close,” Arizona infielder Hallie Wilson said. “… We are going to see those the next few weekends.”

An unbalanced schedule pits the Wildcats against UCLA and then Pac-12 leader Oregon next week to close out regular season play.

Playing the lowly Cardinal right before two big opponents provides a double-edged sword for Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea. He said he was pleased with the team’s offensive outburst — the Wildcats averaged over 14 runs per game last week — but knows UCLA’s pitching will be a major step up.

“I think some of our hitters got healthy mentally,” Candrea said. “Now the challenge will be [to] make good adjustments and get good hitting. Pitching is going to amp up, so it’s going to be a little different.”

Scoring has not usually been an issue for Arizona, as it leads the nation with a .371 batting average and is third in the NCAA in scoring. Every UA position player is batting over .300, and Chelsea Goodacre leads the country with 76 RBIs.

However, there is some room for concern, as the Wildcats have had trouble scoring runs against elite opponents. Earlier this season in nonconference play, Arizona was held scoreless by top-ranked Florida and only managed two runs against Auburn, another top-10 team.

UCLA’s pitching staff could cause the UA similar trouble. The Bruins are led by Ally Carda, who has a 1.99 ERA to go with a 22-4 record. Johanna Grauer is also capable of shutting down lineups, as she enters the series with a 10-1 record and 2.60 ERA.

If runs are to come at a premium for Arizona, it could spell trouble given the Wildcats’ pitching situation.

The UA rotated Michelle Floyd, Siera Phillips and Trish Parks throughout the Stanford series. While the staff generally limited a meandering Stanford lineup to little offense, their performances did not instill a ton of confidence.

“I don’t think we have a seven-inning pitcher right now,” Candrea said. “The best way to utilize all three is to start Michelle, see how far she goes, probably bring in Siera and hopefully be able to use 70 [mph] at the end [from Parks]. But again, the big thing for us is to get ahead of hitters and throw strikes.”

Arizona can’t afford to lend UCLA any extra help, given the Bruins have an offense with nearly as impressive numbers as the Wildcats. Allexis Bennett leads the team with a .507 batting average, a mark that ranks in the top five nationally.

The series begins Friday with a 5 p.m. first pitch and continues through the weekend. All three games will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.

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Follow Ezra Amacher on Twitter.

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