The bullpen could be the difference for UCLA
To call Stony Brook a Cinderella wouldn't be wrong, but it also wouldn't be fair. The Seawolves may be a small profile school from Long Island, New York with little baseball history to speak of, but this isn't a team that cannot compete. They did not get lucky for a day or a weekend and they didn't get a few lucky breaks here and there. Stony Brook won more than 40 games last year, then more than 50 games last year, something you don't do if you're not a good ball club no matter who you are playing.
If the win totals didn't convince observers that the Seawolves could play some ball, last week sure did. Seven Stony Brook players were drafted in last week's MLB Draft, proving that they had the talent, then they went to Baton Rouge and beat LSU in the Super Regionals, proving that they were tough enough.
The Seawolves didn't just beat LSU, though, they thoroughly outplayed them for three games. Stony Brook outhit the number seven national seed LSU 35-15 in the series and never looked intimidated by the toughest place for any visiting team in the country to play in.
Stony Brook has the talent and they clearly aren't intimidated by the big stage. Last week proved that and while they aren't a traditional power or even a favorite in Omaha, they aren't out of place at the College World Series.
UCLA will turn to Adam Plutko in their opener, which is expected. The right-hander is the Bruins' ace and with the game being on Friday he also gets to throw on his regular rest in his regular routine.
The one thing that the Bruins know they are going to get from Plutko is someone who is not intimidated by the spotlight. He showed up as a freshman last year and in his first start threw six shutout innings, allowing just two hits. In three postseason starts he is 3-0 with a 0.77 ERA. When the pressure is ratcheted up, he just gets better.
Plutko is also on a heck of a hot streak right now, too. In his last six starts he is 6-0 with an ERA under 1.00 so he is at his best right now.
Against Stony Brook, Plutko will have to be good too because the Seawolves will turn to Tyler Johnson. A local kid from Chatsworth, Johnson is the epitome of a pitcher. He doesn't throw hard so he won't wow anyone and that is why he wasn't highly recruited, but he hits spots inside and outside with all of his pitches.
Like Plutko, Johnson is pitching extremely well right now. He threw a complete game three-hitter at LSU last weekend and if you can keep runs off of the board there, you can do it anywhere.
Edge: Both guys can go out and throw a complete game shutout, especially with all of the fly balls that die at TD Ameritrade Park, where the wind usually blows in. This one is a draw.
The Bruins and Seawolves are very similar clubs. That is true on the mound, where neither team has high-strikeout starter, but pitch to contact and play good defense, but it is more true at the plate.
Neither UCLA nor Stony Brook has a ton of power, but they put the ball in play, they are athletic and they grind out at-bats. Two teams, one philosophy.
As is always the case for UCLA, but especially in a pitcher's park like TD Ameritrade, the offense is going to have to come from the bottom of the order as much as the top of it. Jeff Gelalich, Tyler Heineman, Trevor Brown, Beau Amaral and Cody Keefer will get it done at the top, but Pat Valaika, Kevin Williams, Kevin Kramer and Cody Regis will need to get it done at the bottom too.
Williams and Regis will be the keys. For Williams, it is about getting back in the game after missing two weeks with a knee injury and just getting back last weekend. For Regis, it is about stepping up with the big hit, as he did last weekend, and putting a rough season behind him. He had a huge College World Series in 2010 and the Bruins will need him again this time.
That the Bruins get to go up against a right-handed starter and an exclusively right-handed bullpen does help. They will be able to lean on that left-handed heavy lineup of their, which hits lefties fine, but really feasts on righties.
Stony Brook has plenty of offense of their own, too. They are hitting .321 as a team in the postseason against Miami, Central Florda, Missouri St. and LSU so they are doing it against high-level competition.
William Carmona leads the Seawolves offense, but he has stepped it up to a whole other level in the postseason. He is hitting .514 with two home runs and 12 RBI in the Regionals and Super Regionals, pacing a hot Stony Brook team. Travis Jankowski is getting it done too, hitting .487. Carmona and Jankowski are the Seawolves' two top hitters and they are showing it in the postseason.
Edge: Normally this category would go to the Bruins, but the Seawolves are on fire at the plate and get a draw here because of the hot streak they are on.
This was supposed to be the weakness for UCLA, but that was before the season. All the bullpen has done since is spend 60 games making anyone who doubted the Bruin relievers look silly. Scott Griggs has struggled of late, but he did rack up 15 saves. He may scare you, but he usually gets the job done. The real strength of the bullpen is in front of him, though, where Ryan Deeter and David Berg have been phenomenal. Between the two, UCLA can lock down three or maybe even four innings and despite both being right-handed, they can pitch to lefties.
One of the big advantages for UCLA will be the availability of Grant Watson. The lone left-hander on the UCLA staff, Watson has been important in relief, but he also makes some starts and isn't always available out of the bullpen. In the College World Series, with the game spread out, the earliest Watson will have to start is on Tuesday and that is only if UCLA loses one of their first two games and John Savage decides to start him instead od Zack Weiss. He is free to go on Friday in relief for as long as Savage wants him and that is big.
That is the one thing that Stony Brook doesn't have -- a left-hander. They are alright in the bullpen, mainly leaning on James Campbell, but they lack depth and they lack a lefty. If Johnson runs into trouble, they won't have a ton of guys to go to and they won't have a left-hander to go up against the lefties in the UCLA lineup. That may not always be a big deal for the Seawolves, but against UCLA it is.
Edge: The lack of a left-hander against the Bruins is big and UCLA certainly had the advantage in depth with several guys they can really depend on. That Bruin bullpen is a big edge here and might be their biggest advantage all tournament.
Again, the Bruins and Seawolves are very similar here. If Amaral isn't the best defensive center fielder in the country then it is probably because Jankowski is. Heineman might have the best arm behind the plate of any catcher in Omaha, but Pat Cantwell can give him a run. Pat Valaika is sturdy at shortstop, but so is Cole Peragine.
Both UCLA and Stony Brook are strong up the middle of the defense and that is what makes them so good. Neither team has pitchers who strike out a ton of guys so they lean upon good defenses and both have it. The difference here could be at the hot corner, where Carmona is a bit shaky and the Bruins have gotten good play from Kramer. With both teams eager to bunt, that could play big.
Edge: This one is really close and if both teams didn't bunt as much as they did then this would be a draw, but they do and the difference at third base gives UCLA the advantage.
It is incredible how similar these teams are and it will really be a battle of pitching and defense, with the team who can find the gap with their liners as opposed to a simple base hit at an outfielder making the difference. This one probably plays close all game, where the UCLA bullpen makes the difference and delivers the Bruins a win, but that their junior class was in Omaha two years ago and has experience doesn't hurt either.