UCLA will look to replicate last season's postseason magic (Photo Credit: Scott Wu)
Postseason baseball is on its way and it is coming to Jackie Robinson Stadium. Four teams from California will head to Westwood this weekend for the Los Angeles Regional, one of 16 Regionals around the country that open up the NCAA baseball postseason. UCLA is the Regional host and number one seed, but they are joined by Fresno St., UC Irvine and San Francisco, making up one of the tougher Regionals anywhere in the country.
Having four California teams in the field, there is a lot of familiarity. UCLA played San Francisco to start the season and won three close games, while they also split a pair of midweek games with UC Irvine. Fresno St. also played the Dons, taking two of three one-run games. In short, earlier season games taught us San Francisco is good enough to win, but didn't get it done, and well, that's about all we learned.
Looking at the weekend, the edge has to go to UCLA. The Dons can nip the Bruins in the opener, but if UCLA wins on Friday then they have Trevor Bauer going for them on Saturday versus either Fresno St. or UC Irvine. Both teams have a significant drop off in starting pitchers after their aces, both of whom will be unavailable after starting on Friday, making the Bruins heavy Saturday favorites. That puts UCLA in the enviable situation of having two games to win just one and advance to the Super Regionals.
It is hardly a guarantee that UCLA wins the Regional and it will be a tough road against three very good teams, but the path to a Regional title isn't hard to map put. That said, San Francisco is among the better number four seeds, Fresno St. is probably the Regional's most complete team and certainly the team most capable of going through the winner's bracket to win the Regional, while UC Irvine has more than enough experience and talent to get the job done. Best Regional or not, the Los Angeles Regional is one of the best and calling it most competitive isn't a stretch either. Luckily, even those who can't make it out to Jackie Robinson Stadium this weekend, each and all of the games from the stadium can be seen live online.
UCLA (33-22, 18-9 Pac-10)
As the number one seed, UCLA are the favorites and what does set them apart is their pitching, which ranked fourth in the nation with a 2.45 ERA. It is led by Trevor Bauer, the Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year who went 12-2 with a 1.27 ERA and didn't just lead the nation with 189 strikeouts, he ran away from the field with the next closest pitcher more than 50 strikeouts behind him. Add in potential number one pick in Monday's MLB Draft and one of the nation's best freshmen, Adam Plutko, and UCLA has one heck of starting staff.
Where UCLA runs into trouble is after those three. For all the hype around Cole and Bauer in last year's run to the College World Series, the bullpen was overlooked, but that didn't make them anything less than brilliant. This year, the bullpen has been less than brilliant. Nick Vander Tuig is a solid closer, but he is a freshman in his first postseason and his best set-up man, Mitchell Beacom, is out for the weekend with a broken foot. With Zack Weiss needed to potentially start if Monday's game is necessary, the Bruins are not strong in the bullpen.
Whether they are weaker on offense than they are in the bullpen remains to be seen. The bullpen is somewhat known to be weak, but not disastrous. The offense, well, it has ranged from fantastic to terrible and which end of the spectrum they are on this weekend is a question mark. Dean Espy has come on strong of late, totaling 12 hits in his last five games to leave him with a team-high .322 batting average. The Bruins will also depend on Beau Amaral and Pat Valaika to replicate their strong Pac-10 campaigns, while Cody Regis will be asked to provide the power as he did with a team-high six homers this season and tremendous postseason last year.
Fresno St. Bulldogs (40-14, 17-7 WAC)
UCLA's offense may be a question mark, but Fresno St.'s certainly isn't. Dusty Robinson leads the team with 16 home runs, but he's joined by Jordan Ribera, last year's national leader in home runs who got off to an awful start, but finished strong to get to eight homers. Danny Muno sets the table with his .340 batting average and 13 steals, giving the Bulldogs the Regional's best offense at 6.6 runs per game.
The Bulldogs also back that up with the Regional's best bullpen. Charlie Robertson closed out 12 games and Tyler Garrison added three to go with a 1.38 ERA. With options from both the left and right side and up to seven capable relievers, the Bulldogs go deep and can finish strong.
Where the Bulldogs may run into trouble is starting strong. Greg Gonzalez is a bonafide ace and will make them tough on UC Irvine in the Regional opener, but after that it's not so clear what the Bulldogs do. Tom Harlan is an option with his 3.90 ERA, as is Josh Poytress with his 2.80 ERA, but after Gonzalez they really do mix and match so exactly who they go with is unclear. What is clear is that they don't have go-to guys, although their great hitting and bullpen has mitigated that for most of the year.
UC Irvine Anteaters (39-16, 16-8 Big West)
Like Fresno St., UC Irvine also has a go-to ace to throw on Friday. The Anteaters' ace in a second-team All-American named Matt Summers who converted from centerfield and took to the spot on the bump rather well. The right-hander went 10-2 with a 1.74 ERA this year and is coming off of throwing a no-hitter last week. Matt Whitehouse comes after him and with a 2.14 ERA, he has done well, but only 10 of his appearances have been starts and he hasn't exactly been the master of going deep into games.
Also like Fresno St., the Anteaters have a good bullpen. Brian Hernandez has 12 saves and while they lack the couple other dominant bullpen arms of the Bulldogs, they go deep with dependable arms. It will serve the Anteaters well in the postseason and allows them to do what head coach Mike Gillespie likes to do most - play the percentages and match-up with the batters.
Where the Anteaters can be had is at the plate, where they have had their share of empty games to go along with their good ones. While UCLA may look without power with just 16 home runs this season, Irvine is worse off at just 11. They do have the aforementioned Hernandez, who hits .354 and Sean Madigan is an experienced clutch player, but the star is Drew Hillman, who hit .347 with a team-best 47 RBI.
San Francisco (31-23, 16-5 WCC)
It's tough to imagine just how San Francisco managed to win the West Coast Conference considering they lost their first five games of the year and eight of their last 11 before conference play began. Add an injury to top reliever Garrett Luippold and the Dons' run to the WCC title was even more impressive, but the most impressive part was the last injury they overcame. Ace Matt Lujan was sidelined with just two weeks left in the season with an elbow injury and the Dons had to go to Gonzaga, whom they were tied with atop the conference, and pick up a series win to qualify for the postseason, something they did.
How they did it is largely a matter of defense. The Dons put up a .984 fielding percentage, the best in Division I since 1971. As is always the case with teams coached by Nino Giarratano, the Dons do not beat themselves and they do not give up, making them a likable and dangerous underdog, so long as you're not a fan of the team they're playing.
With Lujan out, San Francisco has turned to Kyle Zimmer on Friday. His numbers don't pop out with a 5-4 record, 4.14 ERA and .281 batting average against, but when the Dons needed him most last week against Gonzaga he stepped up with seven innings of two-run ball. They don't need a ton from Zimmer or the rest of their less than impressive rotation because of their impressive bullpen, which has three go-to guys and a handful of others who can eat up innings. If nothing else, the bullpen keeps the Dons in games late, which is dangerous for opponents playing a scrappy team.
Offensively, there isn't much power in any individual. Four home runs are the most that any Don has, but four different Dons have four and the team combined for 31 home runs so there is pop and that is what most defines the USF offense. From top to bottom, no one really scares teams, but every single hitter is capable. They're lead by Pete Lavin and his .350 batting average, while Travis Higgs provides some middle of the order power, but it is their threat at the bottom as much of the top that threatens opponents.
- Game 1: No. 3 UC Irvine vs. No. 2 Fresno St., 2 pm
- Game 2: No. 1 UCLA vs. No. 4 San Francisco, 6 pm
- Game 3: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 2 pm
- Game 4: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 6 pm
- Game 5: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser, 2 pm
- Game 6: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 6 pm
- Game 7 (if necessary): Rematch of Game 6, 6 pm