Less than a week after a record snowfall in Minneapolis, Minnesota (six inches on February 24th to be exact), the UCLA Bruin baseball team is heading to the Land of 10,000 Lakes to play in the Dairy Queen Classic / B1G-Pac 12 Challenge. How can that be in such weather, you ask? Well, the Bruins will play three games indoors, a rarity for the Bruins, at the shiny and new U.S Bank Stadium, home of the Minnesota Vikings and Super Bowl LII just a few short weeks ago.
UCLA (7-1) is fresh off a win in its first road game of the season, a 12-2 victory over Cal State Fullerton that saw the Bruins put away what had been a close game with a five-run eighth inning followed by a four-run ninth inning. The Bruins, along with Arizona and Washington, will now play one game each against Illinois (3-3), Michigan State (2-5), and Minnesota (6-2).
First up for the Bruins is a very early Friday game at 9 a.m. PT—follow along with streaming audio at work!—against Illinois. Let’s take a brief look at the Illini.
Illinois is coming off a sub-.500 season in 2017 and finds itself at 3-3 going into the game today. Notably, the Illini have not yet played any games at home (conversely, UCLA has played all but one of their games in Westwood). Two of the Illini’s wins have come against lesser teams (South Dakota State and Virginia Commonwealth), but Illinois has also beaten Coastal Carolina, the 2016 National Champions and holders of an 8-2 record this season, so anything is possible.
Taking the hill for Illinois is junior right hander Quinn Snarskis. Snarskis has two appearances this season, one of which was a start (against West Virginia). The Mountaineers roughed up Snarskis, tagging him for five earned runs on five innings. Four of those runs came in the first inning, before Snarskis settled down. In his other appearance, Snarskis threw 3.1 innings of scoreless relief. If UCLA is to have a big day, it might be necessary for them to touch up Snarskis right out of the gate before he settles down.
At the plate, UCLA needs to be very careful with junior first baseman Bren Spillane, who leads the Illini with a .390 batting average and a .739 slugging percentage. Spillane has three doubles, a triple, and a home run. Although several Illinois hitters are not hitting well for average, they still have a lot of power; UCLA cannot sleep on the likes of junior outfielders Doran Turchin (.190, 3 HR) or Zac Taylor (.208, 2 HR).
Jake Bird, UCLA’s usual Friday starter, will get the call today. Bird pitched really well against the undermanned Portland Pilots two weeks ago, and pitched OK, but not great, against Baylor (better competition) last Friday, surrendering two runs (both unearned) on six hits in 5.2 innings. I think Jake is going to have a strong game today.
UCLA continues to hit the baseball well, batting .287 as a team. If UCLA can maintain those type of numbers for the season, with the Bruins’ pitching and defense what it is, this team could make some noise in the PAC 12 and the postseason. That is a big if, though, as UCLA’s competition so far does not measure up against the likes of Oregon State or Stanford.
Michael Toglia and Chase Strumpf continue to shine at the plate, with both players batting .433 with 13 hits in 30 at-bats. I want to focus on Toglia, who hit two home runs at Fullerton last Tuesday night. The home runs, a solo shot over the signage beyond the wall in right field to start the 8th inning and a two-run bomb over the scoreboard in left center field from in the 9th inning, were notable for two reasons: (1) both were absolute moon shots, one from each side of the plate; and (2) very few people hits bombs like that at Goodwin Field which, like Jackie Robinson Stadium, is known as a pitcher’s park, especially at night. Long story short, Michael Toglia is a special player.
One other note about UCLA’s hitting: Kyle Cuellar, the Bruins leader in batting average last season, has started the season slowly from an average perspective, hitting only .143, with three hits in 21 at bats. But, Cuellar has not been a failure at the dish. Far from it. Cuellar leads the team in walks with nine and has also been hit by pitches three times, which has resulted in a very respectable .441 on base percentage and him scoring seven runs on the season. When Cuellar starts hitting the ball, look out.
The Dairy Queen Classic will not be televised. Fans, however, can follow tonight’s game via live statistics on CBS GameTracker or listen to Tim Wilhelm call the game via streaming audio / internet radio.
I expect Jake Bird to pitch better than he did last week against Baylor. Even if he doesn’t, I think that the Bruins have the offense to beat Illinois in a score-fest. Either way—pitchers’ duel or high scoring game—I like the Bruins in this one.
The one factor that could derail the Bruins is the early start—9 a.m. PT. UCLA is used to playing much later in the day. Hopefully, Head Coach John Savage has taken some measures to help the Bruins adjust their body clocks.
This is your UCLA Bruin Baseball versus Illinois open thread. Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below. And . . . Go Bruins!!!