(Photo: Michael Baron/WCSN)
Arizona State has played well enough the last four weekends to prove it has the potential to compete with the nation’s best. This weekend, the Sun Devils will have one more chance to prove they are serious postseason contenders.
The No. 22 Arizona State Sun Devils host the No. 10 UCLA Bruins this weekend in Tempe, ASU’s final three games before the start of NCAA Regionals.
With this pivotal final series on the horizon, let’s look at five key questions, the answer to which will decide the outcome of this weekend’s series.
- Can the Sun Devils beat a ranked team over a three-game series?
The Devils have faced some fierce competition this season, as is normally the case when playing in the Pac-12. ASU stood its ground, hanging between being ranked 21st and 24th all season. However, the Devils have yet to take at least two games in a series against a top 25 team this year. Some would give them a pass because their level of competition has been high, much of it has been on the road and they have consistently been neck-and-neck with some of the nation’s best teams, regardless of the end result. The Sun Devils are looking to repeat their performance from the last time they hosted the nation’s No. 10 team: April 21-23 vs. Utah. Every game in the series was decided by only a run, and the Sun Devils had 39 baserunners to Utah’s 27, but ultimately lost two of three games. ASU will need more of the same this weekend with the timely hits they were missing three weekends ago.
- Will UCLA bounce back from a loss?
Prior to losing Sunday’s series finale against the University of Arizona, the Bruins had won 10 straight games, including the previous two against No. 3 Arizona and three against the California Golden Bears. However, all 10 games in that win streak were in their home state. UCLA lost two of its previous three out-of-state road games, dropping a series against the unranked Oregon State Beavers. This is good news for the Sun Devils, as Oregon State was a team they took two of three from while outscoring 23-5. This shows that the Bruins have a weak spot despite their recent success and consequent ascent in the rankings. What will decide this series is if we see the California or the Oregon version of UCLA this weekend in Tempe.
- Will Dale Ryndak keep up her performance from the Cal series?
The junior starter has been a crucial part of this season’s team, as her and fellow junior Breanna Macha each have a sub-2.00 ERA. Ryndak reminded everyone of her value in last weekend’s Cal series, combining to pitch six shutout innings where she allowed three hits and no walks. It was a nice rebound from her previous three outings, in which she combined to pitch 12.2 innings allowing nine runs on six walks and 10 hits. UCLA is tied for the fourth-best hitting team (.310) and second best power-hitting team (.502 slugging percentage) in the Pac-12. Therefore, it will be crucial for Ryndak to keep up the level of pitching she showed she is capable of in the Cal series.
- Can ASU’s pitchers contain Kylee Perez?
The Sun Devils haven’t had success containing the Pac-12’s best hitters this season. The Pac-12’s top hitter, Utah’s Hannah Flippen, went 5-for-9 against the Sun Devils with two walks, five RBIs, a home run and a double. Before that, Oregon’s Nikki Udria and Alexis Mack combined to go 7-for-18 against the Sun Devils with two RBIs, a walk, a double and a triple. Next up is the fourth-best hitter in the Pac-12 in Bruin junior Kylee Perez, who is hitting .401 on the season. She will present another tough challenge for ASU pitching, one that will be a good test prior to the upcoming NCAA Regionals.
- Can the senior hitters keep hitting?
ASU got a tremendous series out of its senior starters last weekend against the Golden Bears. Shortstop Chelsea Gonzales went 3-for-7 with three RBIs, a double, home run and three walks. Catcher Sashel Palacios went 4-for-8 with five RBIs, two home runs and three walks. Head coach Trisha Ford talked after Saturday’s win about how she’s been speaking to Gonzales and Palacios in private, trying to explain to them how to take good team at-bats and only swing at good pitches. The seniors have been huge for the Sun Devils all season, and this weekend will be their most important one yet. If Palacios and Gonzales can continue to hit well, ASU has a great chance of winning this series. But, when the senior leaders aren’t stepping up at the plate, the whole team consequently suffers.
The first game of the series will be Thursday at 6 p.m. in Tempe.