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UCLA Baseball Opens the Postseason With a Familiar Foe: The Texas Longhorns

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UCLA was swept by the 'Horns in Austin earlier this season, but this is not the same Bruin team that faced Texas in March.

UCLA's ace, Griffin Canning, takes the mound tonight for the Bruins
UCLA's ace, Griffin Canning, takes the mound tonight for the Bruins
@UCLABaseball

The UCLA Bruin Baseball team (30-25, 19-11 PAC 12) begins postseason play this afternoon against the Texas Longhorns (37-22, 11-12 Big 12) in the first game of the Long Beach Regional at Long Beach State’s Blair Field. First pitch is at 4 p.m. PT. The Longhorns are the region’s #2 seed, while UCLA is seeded #3. The Longhorns will technically be the "home" team tonight.

HISTORY THIS SEASON

During the second week of March, UCLA traveled to Austin for a three game series against the ‘Horns. UCLA was breaking in a very young contingent of field players, and was dealing with replacing its Saturday starter, Jake Bird, who suffered an injury two weeks before. Things did not go well for the Bruins, as Texas swept UCLA, dropping the Bruins to 6-8 at the time.

In the first game, the UCLA bullpen squandered a 4-3 UCLA lead in the bottom of the eighth inning, resulting in a 5-4 loss. Griffin Canning started the game and was solid, but not spectacular, allowing three earned runs (including two solo home runs) in seven innings, and striking out six.

I mention Canning (7-3, 2.34 ERA) because he will likely take the hill for the Bruins today, and he has been very good of late. Nolan Kingham (9-4, 2.99 ERA), who is the Longhorns’ typical Friday starter, is expected to take the mound for Texas. Official starters, however, have not been announced. My money is on the teams putting their best out there to try to stay out of the losers’ bracket in this weekend’s double elimination format.

UCLA was not really competitive with Texas in the other two games earlier this season, falling behind 4-0 in the first inning and losing 5-2 in game two, and getting bombed by the Longhorns in game three, 10-5. Admittedly, game three was a back-and-forth affair until Texas put up four runs in the 6th, opening up a 9-4 lead.

TEXAS

Although the Longhorns swept the Bruins in Austin, a different song might be playing in Long Beach. While Texas had a great home record, 27-8, they were only 10-14 away from home, going 4-3 in neutral site games and 6-11 on the road. The ‘Horns had trouble in the decent, but not great, Big 12 Conference, failed to generate a winning record at 11-12.

Texas has very good pitching, with a team ERA of 3.20, and has held opponents’ hitters to a paltry .236 batting average. Although UCLA will likely see Kingham, Nick Kennedy (8-1, 2.82 ERA) is also a great option for UT. Kingham started the regular season on fire, but cooled off considerably in May, although he fared well in his last two starts, both wins, against West Virginia at home and Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament. Texas’ closer, Beau Ridgeway, has eleven saves and a sub 2.00 ERA. Ridgeway appeared in all three games versus UCLA, but did not record a save.

Kacy Clemens, one of two sons of Roger Clemens on the UT baseball team, tore up UCLA in March, going 5 for 10 for the series, with 5 runs scored and 2 RBI. Clemens hits out of the three hole, and led Texas in batting average (.319), home runs (11), and RBI (48) in the regular season. The Horns’ next best RBI guy only has 29 and next best home run guy only has seven, so Clemens makes the Longhorn offense go.

As a team, Texas is only hitting .256 (compared to UCLA’s .260). If Canning can keep Clemens in check, UCLA has a good shot of getting the victory tonight.

UCLA

The Bruins made the postseason by a whisker. Although UCLA was third in the PAC 12 and won 30 games, its RPI was only 52 and, after the bubble shrunk last Sunday due to multiple conference tournament upsets, it appears that the Bruins were among the "last four in."

No matter. This is a team that is trending up. Starting five freshman for most of the season is not easy and, now, those guys have matured and cannot really be considered freshman.

Take Michael Toglia, for example. The powerful switch hitting right fielder started the season very slowly as he adjusted to the college game, only got four at bats and one hit in the Texas series, and was struggling to make things happen at the plate. Toglia found his footing right arounds the time PAC 12 play began, finishing the regular season hitting .263, with 8 home runs (second on the team) and 33 RBI (also second on the team). Toglia also led the squad in walks. Today’s Michael Toglia is not the Michael Toglia of March and that can be said of several of UCLA’s younger players.

Tonight is all about Griffin Canning though. You know that he wants a measure of retribution against Texas after his last outing against them in Austin. Canning was great in a pressure situation against Oregon last week, tossing a complete game shutout, and he has had several spectacular outings this season, several of them away from the friendly confines of Jackie Robinson Stadium. He needs another one this evening at Blair Field.

MEDIA

First of all, it’s days like today where I REALLY miss living in Southern California, because I would be all over this. If you are a Bruin fan and live in or around Long Beach, come out to Blair Field to cheer on the Bruins. You can bet that there will be a large contingent of Texas fans cheering on the Longhorns.

If you cannot make it to Blair Field, ESPN2 will be covering the game on television at 4 p.m. PT. You can also listen to UCLA’s own John Ramey and Tim Wilhelm via live audio stream, or you can follow along with live stats.

FINAL THOUGHTS

If Griffin Canning has his stuff, and gets a little bit of run support from the team, this is a game that UCLA can win. If not, all hope is not lost in this weekend’s double elimination format, as the Bruins would find themselves in the losers’ bracket tomorrow against either San Diego State or Long Beach State. Of course, it would greatly behoove UCLA to emerge victorious this evening and stay on the winners’ side of the ledger going into tomorrow.

Will UCLA get a measure of retribution against Texas from the 0-3 sweep in March by beating the ‘Horns when it really matters? Or will Texas extend its dominance over UCLA this season? Follow along at 4 p.m. to find out. Here’s to NOT getting "hooked."

Go Bruins!