Can the baseball team avenge the losses of the basketball team in the sport's final round? That's what UCLA will try to do when they open up their first College World Series since 1997 versus Florida at 4 pm PDT tonight on ESPN. And while revenge for what the Gators did to the Bruins in basketball will be on the mind of some fans, that's not true of the players. The nine (plus a DH) that take to the field for UCLA, everyone on the bench and the entire coaching staff will be focused on one thing- getting UCLA their first ever College World Series win. If the Bruins can do that, they'll have set themselves up well for a run at their ultimate goal, the national championship.
To get that first ever College World Series win tonight, UCLA will have to get past a very good and talented Florida team. The Gators enter Omaha with a perfect 5-0 postseason record after running through the Gainesville Regional by a combined score of 32-5 and taking down Miami in two games in the Super Regionals. To have accomplished so much with such a young roster makes Florida's 47-15 record and #3 national seed even more impressive.
For all of Florida's fantastic accomplishment's, UCLA has a few of their own too. Their 43 regular season wins was the most in school history and before they even took to the field for last weekend's Super Regional, they had set a school record for total wins in a season. Now, the Bruins are set to take the Rosenblatt Stadium field with a 48-14 record, a Pac-10 record 639 strike outs and the best pitching staff Omaha will see this June.
Florida has two freshmen in their starting rotation, but they will pitch a sophomore tonight in left-hander Alex Panteliodis. The lone starting pitcher in the Gators rotation who entered the season with college experience, Pantheliodis went 11-2 with a 3.26 ERA on Friday nights. The left-hander held opponents to a .229 batting average without striking out an astronomical number of batters, sitting down 7.4 on strikes per nine innings. Pantheliodis doesn't give away many free passes either, walking just 22 in 96.2 innings. In last week's Super Regionals, Pantheliodis was sensational, walking just one and striking out 11 in a two-run, three hit complete game to hand the Gators an important win to open the round.
In a departure from the norm, it will be Trevor Bauer, not Gerrit Cole, who opens up the weekend for UCLA on the mound. While he has yet to pitch on Friday nights in two years for the Bruins, Bauer has been arguably the team's best pitcher since arriving on campus last year. Starting a bit earlier than expected should be nothing new for Bauer, who graduated from high school early to enroll at UCLA and pitch when his classmates were going to prom. At 10-3 with a 3.02 ERA, Bauer has been consistent all year for the Bruins and leads the nation's leading strike out team with 141 punch outs of his own. Having earned praise over the last two years, never more than in the Regionals when he led the Bruins past LSU in a dominating performance, UCLA head coach John Savage praised Bauer's competitive nature and improving curveball heading into tonight's game.
Looking past the two pitchers who will start the game for each team, the Bruins and Gators both have lockdown closers at the end of days to finish things off. For UCLA, it's Dan Klein, who went 6-0 with nine saves and a 1.93 ERA. The Orioles' third round draft pick struck out over a batter per inning and held opponents to a .214 batting average in 46.2 innings this season. Florida sends Kevin Chapman to the hill to close out their games, a fourth round pick of the Kansas City Royals. The junior picked up 11 saves this season, striking out a batter per inning and holding opponents to a .183 batting average in 30 appearances this season.
Each team has one clear edge on tonight's ballgame. For UCLA, it's the bullpen in front of Klein. With right-hander Erik Goeddel, who went 3-0 with a 3.26 ERA and 10.7 strike outs per nine innings, and left-hander Matt Grace, who went 0-1 with a 3.00 ERA while opposing batters to a .223 batting average, UCLA has options both left and right out of the bullpen. Toss in Garett Claypool, who went 8-3 with a 2.05 ERA on the year both starting and out of the bullpen while holding opponents to a microscopic .171 batting average and the Bruins have the edge in middle relief and set-up men. Florida gets the edge defensively though, where they enter with the best fielding percentage of any College World Series team. The Gators' .978 fielding percentage was sixth best in the country and in a game most expect to be close, the defense could be the difference.
At the plate, each team has a couple of guys worth keeping an eye on. For the Gators, who average seven runs per game, it starts with Matt den Dekker. Florida caught a break when den Dekker decided to return for his senior season and den Dekker has had a heck of a senior year. With a .358 batting average and 64 runs scored, den Dekker leads the team, plus he added 13 home runs and 23 stolen bases. Austin Maddox brings the power for the Gators with 17 home runs and 71 RBI, giving Florida a guy who can change the game with one swing of the bat.
UCLA averages 7.1 runs per game, just a tick more than the Gators, but that came with Tyler Rahmatulla in the lineup. With Rahmatulla sidelined by a broken wrist, the Bruin offense changes a bit. Now, Dean Espy is likely to get a shot in the lineup more regularly and he brings with him a team-best .353 batting average and eight home runs. Beau Amaral, who hit .352 and bumped that to .417 in the postseason, will continue to serve as the table setter for the likes of Espy and Cody Regis, whose four postseason home runs has matched his regular season total.
Two players the Bruins will need more from are two of their seniors, Blair Dunlap is hitting just .237 for the Bruins this postseason, but can change the UCLA lineup if he can get back to the .323 hitting of the regular season. With the injury to Rahmatulla, it's likely that Uribe will go from platooned first baseman to everyday first baseman and his hitting must be better than the .200 batting average of the postseason. With a young team like the Bruins have, getting production from the seniors is key.
All of this comes together at 4 pm PDT at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska. If the Bruins can pull out a win, they will be the first UCLA team to do so and add just another school record to their mantle. As if always the case with UCLA, the key will be continued dominance on the mound, but a little offense wouldn't do them any harm, while they cannot afford to commit errors versus a team unlikely to do so. Of course, baseball, especially on the big stage, rarely goes according to script so we'll just have to watch when it all gets underway this evening.