Two years ago, UCLA returned to the College World Series for the first time in 13 years and only the third time in program history. It was a magical year for Bruin baseball that only got more special when they demolished Florida in their first game in Omaha to register their first College World Series win in school history.
At that point, UCLA already had their most successful season in school history and everything forward was uncharted territory. As it turned out, TCU would be the team in their way one, twice and a third time.
Thanks to Gerrit Cole's 13 strikeouts, the Bruins beat the Horned Frogs, 6-3, and moved within a win of the Championship Series. They wouldn't be done with TCU, though. The Horned Frogs won their loser's bracket game to get to the bracket final, where the Bruins were waiting, but this time around it was TCU who got the upper hand and defeated UCLA, 6-2, to force a deciding game.
The winner would play for the national title and the loser's season would come to an end. It was that simple and with the pressure on, the Bruins rose to the challenge. Trevor Bauer matched Gerrit Cole's 13 strikeouts against the Horned Frogs and the UCLA offense exploded for five runs in the first inning en route to a 10-3 win.
Now we stand here two years later and it is UCLA vs. TCU again. Like the last time around (albeit actually planned to be a three-game series this time), the Bruins and Horned Frogs will play three games, with the winner moving on and the loser going home for a long offseason. This time it comes a round earlier, in the Super Regionals as opposed to the College World Series, and in Los Angeles as opposed to Omaha, but the idea is the same. The Bruins and Horned Frogs: one gets to continue their run to a national title, the other calls it a season.
Neither team leans on their starting pitching. That's not to say that it isn't good because both teams have above-average starters, but both teams excel elsewhere and just try to get enough out of the men who take the ball to start.
If you would have told someone last weekend that UCLA doesn't lean on their starting pitching, though, they would have called you nuts. Adam Plutko turned in a complete game shutout to improve to 5-0 with a 0.49 ERA in his last five starts and Nick Vander Tuig tossed eight innings of one-hit ball. They were absolutely dominant and could have gone toe-to-toe with any starting pitchers in the country.
The question for the Bruins is what do they do on Sunday. Zack Weiss had a rocky outing in the Regionals and while he did well to eek out five innings and keep Creighton to three-runs, his line was more flattering than his pitching. As of now, John Savage hasn't named a starter for Sunday yet and could turn to Grant Watson, but that possibility might go out the window if the Bruins need Watson, their only left-hander, out of the bullpen on Friday or Saturday.
While the Bruin pitchers get outs with their fastball and may walk a batter or two more than they would like, the Horned Frogs mix pitches and pound the zone with strikes. Preston Morrison throws in the mid-80's, but he hides the ball well and throws a lot of strikes. Stefan Crichton has been hit pretty well -- opponents are hitting .277 off of him --, but he doesn't walk batters.
The Horned Frogs are making a change to their rotation this weekend, sending the effective Andrew Mitchell to the bullpen and starting Brandon Finnegan to the rotation after he threw 7.1 innings of two-run ball last weekend. Finnegan is a more convention pitcher, working in the low-90's, and he's also left-handed, giving TCU another lefty to throw at the left-handed heavy UCLA lineup.
Edge: UCLA has an advantage here if only because of how good they looked on the mound last weekend. Otherwise it would be a draw.
Remember last season when UCLA couldn't hit a lick? It feels like a long time ago, but every time the Bruins struggle at the plate those memories come flowing right back. Luckily for the Bruins, those memories haven't come back much this season.
UCLA ranks 12th in the county in batting average and have scored 6.3 runs per game, a far cry from their anemic offense of a year ago. The offensive explosion has made the Bruins improve despite losing Cole and Bauer.
Jeff Gelalich is hitting .372 on the year and hit two home runs en route to Los Angeles Regional Most Outstanding Player last week. Tyler Heineman has also taken his game to a whole new level this season, hitting .351 and carrying a .451 on-base percentage almost as good as Gelalich's .462. The real strength in the Bruins offense comes in their depth, though, whether it be Beau Amaral's 61 runs, Trevor Brown's 50 RBI, Cody Keefer hitting .342 or Kevin Kramer hitting over .350 since April 24. UCLA gets it done from top to bottom.
On paper, the Bruins should have a major advantage over the Horned Frogs, who hit just .272 as a team, but those numbers are deceiving. TCU battled injuries all season and it showed, both in their offensive output and their record. Almost completely healthy last weekend, TCU showed what kind of offense they have, averaging over 10 runs per game in their five-game Regional run.
Josh Elander is the big bat with 10 homers and a .316 average to his name and Kevin Cron can also get the job done, hitting .350 with six home runs in just 41 games this season. The Horned Frogs did an outstanding job finding ways on base, totaling more walks than even the Bruins, but they will feel the absence of Jason Coates. The senior and the Horned Frogs' top hitter is out injured and that could be the difference because TCU isn't especially deep.
Edge: If TCU hits like it did last weekend then the edge obviously goes to the Horned Frogs, but UCLA has an entire season backing them up and TCU has one weekend so the arrow is pointing the Bruins' way.
With TCU moving Mitchell to the bullpen, they have a very nice trio of guys to go to at the end of games in him, Justin Scharf and Kevin Allen. Mitchell is projected to be a reliever in the pros and now that he can max out for an inning or two as opposed to saving himself for 100 pitches, he can be really scary with a mid-90's fastball and hammer curveball. Scharf is the Horned Frogs' David Berg, working sidearm and racking up innings and out, while Allen is a dependable guy for an inning.
Amazingly, the bullpen is one of UCLA's strengths. They entered the season with zero experience there, but Berg has been Mr. Everyday, eating up innings brilliantly in the sixth and seventh before turning it over to ace set-up man Ryan Deeter. The Bruins can also turn to Zack Ortiz or Chase Brewer if necessary and Watson, if he doesn't start. The only concern is Scott Griggs, who has plenty of saves, but often does it the hard way and has struggled of late.
Edge: Nobody gets the edge here. The Bruins have the depth advantage, but Griggs' struggles make this one a draw.
One of the more underrated parts of the Bruin team this year was their defense. They caught the ball well and their outfield trio of Amaral, Keefer and Gelalich took away countless hits this year. Their .976 fielding percentage only tells half the story because it can't measure the great range of the UCLA defense.
TCU is a solid defensive team, putting up a .966 fielding percentage, which is more than respectable. Keaton Jones can really pick it at shortstop and Kyle Van Tungein is a defensive star in center, but Elmander can be very shaky behind the plate.
Edge: The range would already give UCLA the edge and a shaky catcher just puts it over the top.
This one should go to to the Bruins. Both teams are playing great baseball right now, arguably their best ball of the season, and this is hardly a cakewalk with the way that the Horned Frogs hit the ball last weekend, but UCLA is more experienced, deeper and is at home.
All three games this weekend will be televised nationally (Friday, 6 pm PT, ESPN. Saturday, 6 pm PT, ESPN2. Sunday if necessary, 7 pm PT, ESPN2) so you can catch them on the Worldwide Leader. If you're in LA, there are still tickets available so get them now.