After hosting just two Regionals prior to 2010, UCLA is set to host their fourth consecutive Regional this weekend and this time the round really takes after its name with three California schools joining the Bruins at Jackie Robinson Stadium in the first weekend of NCAA postseason play. Cal Poly, San Diego and San Diego St. will all take to the field with the Bruins in Westwood in a double elimination weekend with one team advancing to the Super Regionals and the other three beginning plans for 2014.
UCLA will hope that this all-California Regional goes better than their last one, in 2011, when they went 1-2 on the weekend for an early postseason exit. Unfortunately for the Bruins, there are more similarities between 2013 and 2011 than just where the fellow Regional teams are from. There is the dominant, experienced starting staff, excellent defense and an offense prone to dry spells too, which make UCLA a Regional host and threat to go to Omaha, but also a popular upset pick.
There is no doubt that UCLA has the staff to bring home the national title, led by Adam Plutko, who is 4-0 with 27 strikeouts and a 0.89 ERA in four career postseason starts. But as good as Plutko is, Nick Vander Tuig was the Bruins' best starter this season, going 10-4 with a 2.30 ERA, 74 strikeouts and 13 walks in 101.2 innings this season. And despite all of that, along with Grant Watson (7-3, 3.50 ERA), it is David Berg who captured Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year honors after going 6-0 with a 0.70 ERA, 64 strikeouts and just five wals in 41 appearances out of the bullpen. And before the Bruins get to Berg, they have James Kaprielian, who allowed just six earned runs and held hitters to a .160 batting average in 28 appearances, and Zac Weiss, who had a 2.50 ERA in 38 appearances, to help out in the backend of the bullpen.
The Bruins' pitching staff is backed up by a defense that posted a .980 fielding percentage, led by Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Pat Valaika, but the offense can go astray and therein lies the Bruins' weakness.
UCLA hit a Pac-12 worst .249 this season, Kevin Kramer was the only Bruin with an on-base percentage over .400 and aside from Brian Carroll's 29 stolen bases, nobody else on the team stolen double digit bases. The Bruins have flashed their offensive potential before, scoring 29 runs in three games against Arizona, but were also limited to five runs against each of the Oregon schools. Whether that offense can give UCLA enough support for its brilliant pitching staff will determine whether they are a serious candidate to return to the College World Series for the third time in four years or whether the Bruins are going to mirror the 2011 team and go home in the first weekend.
Cal Poly Mustangs (39-17, 2nd Big West Conference)
The Big West had developed into a two-team conference, led by Cal St. Fullerton and UC Irvine, but Cal Poly made a dent in the league this season, taking advantage of the Anteaters slide and surging to a 17-10 conference campaign. The Mustangs didn't just feast on the conference either, going 7-5 against the RPI top 50, including series wins over Regional hosts Kansas St.
This is not the first time that Cal Poly has had a good team, but this might be the first time that they have a team balanced enough to make a postseason run. They finally have the pitching to compete, led by Matt Imhoff, who compiled a 2.52 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 2013. Joey Wagman backed him up with a 3.11 ERA in 104.1 innings, giving the Mustangs a legitimate one-two punch.
The question is what Cal Poly does after those two, but whoever gets the nod in the Mustangs' third and possibly fourth games will be comforted by a solid bullpen behind them. Reed Reilly has one of the best fastballs in California and Michael Holback is awfully dependable.
Cal Poly didn't have to dump their offense to get some arms either. Denver Chavez hit .362 and Nick Torres gives the Mustangs a big bat in the middle of the lineup with a .336 batting average, seven home runs and 47 RBI. The big question for Cal Poly is what they get from Brian Mundell, who has massive power and hit 10 home runs, but he hits just .266 and is prone to dry spells. If he doesn't make an impact this weekend, neither will the Mustangs.
San Diego Toreros (35-23, 4th West Coast Conference)
San Diego is returning to the Los Angeles Regional, a year after going 0-2 and being the first team sent home from Jackie Robinson Stadium. Once again, the Toreros are led by Kris Bryant, the nation's top hitter and a likely top five pick in the MLB Draft.
Bryant is hitting .340 this season with 62 RBI and his 31 homers are more than 226 teams in the country, UCLA included. Toss in a .860 slugging percentage and .500 on-base percentage and there is no doubt who the best hitter in the country is.
As good as Bryant is, he isn't alone at the plate. Dillon Haupt has 11 home runs and 49 RBI this season and Connor Joe is hitting .321 with seven home runs for a Toreros team that hit .290 as a team and got home runs from 10 different players.
San Diego has a true ace to lead them, too, although there are concerns about how the freshman P.J. Conlon will handle the postseason. If he isn't overwhelmed, and he hasn't been at all this season, the Toreros have a left-hander who put up a 1.65 ERA this season on the bump. After Conlon, the San Diego pitchers are a concern because they haven't gotten production from their power arms like Dylan Covey and Michael Wagne. Troy Conyers tossed a complete game shutout in the WCC Championship Game last week, but he struggled all season and San Diego is hardly sure of what they will get from him. Trevor Bayless gives the Toreros a go-to arm at the back end of the bullpen, but whether they can get him the ball without Conlon starting is another question.
Despite finishing fourth in the WCC, the Toreros were a likely Regional team even before winning the conference tournament and it was because of what they did in non-conference play. They went 5-0 in the Highes Brothers Challenge, including wins ove UNC Wilmington and Cal St. Fullerton, while also adding a series win over Oregon St.
San Diego St. Aztecs (31-29, 3rd Mountain West Conference)
Are the Aztecs a mediocre team that got lucky or a hot team primed to keep racking up wins? They will hope to prove the latter this weekend after going from a team making offseason plans to the MWC Tournament champions.
San Diego St. ran off four straight wins to cap the conference tournament and earn themselves a postseason berth, but this is still the same team that was a meager 26-28 during the regular season. They had a 4.07 ERA and hit .274 with just 17 home runs themselves, both pedestrian numbers reflective of the average team they were for three months,
The Aztecs a legitimate ace in Ryan Doran, who went 8-3 with a 2.63 ERA and will get the nod in San Diego St.'s Regional opener against UCLA. But as good as Doran is, Michael Cederoth is the most talented pitcher on the Aztecs' staff with a fastball that touches triple digits, but he was up and down all season, compiling a 4.15 ERA on the year. With Philip Walby behind them, San Diego St. has three reliable pitchers, while Ethan Miller and Bubba Derby anchor the bullpen, but outside of those five, the Aztecs are short on depth.
If San Diego St. get into the loser's bracket and have to dig deep into their pitching staff, they are going to run into trouble, which means the offense needs to step up. Tim Zier, who hit .346, and Tyler France will have to keep up his .313, five home run performance from the regular season, but it will come down to whether the rest of the inconsistent lineup can stay hot after last week's blowout.
The Regional will start with Cal Poly and San Diego at 2 p.m. on Friday, followed by UCLA and San Diego St. at 6 p.m. It will continue all weekend with games at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. daily and will be broadcast live on ESPN3.