The road to Omaha begins tonight at Jackie Robinson Stadium, as UCLA takes on the Hofstra Pride in a three game series. Game times are 6 pm tonight, 2 pm tomorrow, and 1 pm on Sunday.
On paper, the series looks like a mismatch, but every game begins 0-0 top of the first. As we noted on Wednesday, UCLA is picked to win the Pac-12 this season. Here is the conference preview from Baseball America. As you can see, UCLA has pro prospects galore, and this does not include the freshmen who are members of the 7th ranked recruiting class in the country.
The top Pac-12 prospect in the 2015 MLB draft is UCLA's own James Kaprielian, tonight's starting pitcher. Kaprielian is also picked by Baseball America as the conference preseason pitcher of the year. Sunday's starting pitcher, Cody Poteet, is the 10th ranked Pac-12 prospect in the 2015 draft. Left fielder Ty Moore, coming off an All-Star summer in the Cape Cod league and a solid sophomore season, and one of the two leaders of the UCLA offense (along with Kevin Kramer) is the 17th ranked prospect in the 2015 draft. Sophomore right fielder Kort Peterson, coming off an All-Star summer in the West Coast League, is the 10th ranked conference prospect in the 2016 draft. And sophomore left handed pitcher Hunter Virant, coming back from injury, is projected as the 8th ranked conference prospect in the 2016 draft. Virant will be a setup man for All-American closer David Berg. There is a reason the Bruins are picked to win the conference.
Hofstra, by contrast, is not picked to do much in the Colonial Athletic Association. Here is Baseball America's conference preview. The most highly rated pro prospect for Hofstra is Sunday starter Nick Kozlowski.
Last year, with Kaprielian starting Friday games for UCLA, the Bruins were 9-6, and scored an average of 3.2 runs while giving up an average of 2.5 runs per game. With UCLA's emphasis on pitching and defense, close games are the norm, particularly when you have the Friday aces facing each other. Interestingly, in 2013's championship season, the average score in Friday games was UCLA 3.3, opponents 2.5- about the same as 2014. The Bruins finished 11-4 with the same run margin. But it is safe to say that the downfall in 2014 was the not the result of any downturn in Friday pitching.
Facing Kaprielian on Friday night will be a JC transfer, Chris Bonk, who was 10-1 with a 4.06 ERA in 2014 at Garden City (Kansas) Community College. Last year, Hofstra scored an average of three runs in Friday games (about the same as UCLA), but gave up 5.6 runs on average. This is obviously a contrast to Kaprielian's Bruins. Even with the runs allowed, Hofstra did finish 5-5 in Friday games.
On Saturday, Grant Watson will be the starting pitcher for the Bruins. Watson was also the Saturday starter last season. UCLA scored 3.2 runs on average in Saturday games last year (almost the same as Friday games), but the Bruins gave up 4.1 runs on average per game. And the result was a 5-10 record in Saturday games. In the championship 2013 season, the Bruins scored an average of 4.8 runs against the opposing Saturday starter, but only allowed 3.1 runs per game. And UCLA was 10-5 in Saturday games in 2013. 2014 was a sharp turnaround (in a negative way) from 2013. Hopefully, Watson will find his 2013 form again, when he was the Sunday starter (more on that in a moment).
Hofstra will throw a freshman in his collegiate debut on Saturday against Grant Watson. Adam Heidenfelder looks like a power pitcher in terms of physique- 6'5", 255. His bio says that his nickname is Heidi. That may be a reference to his last name. We will be able to posit another theory if the cows start coming home for the Bruins early and often. Saturday was Hofstra's best day last season, as they scored an average of 6 runs a game and gave up 4.8 (less than Friday), while posting a 7-3 record.
On Sunday, Cody Poteet will start for the Bruins, completing the same weekend rotation as last season. Last season, Poteet struggled, as the Bruins offense scored an average of 4.3 runs per game on Sunday (Kaprielian should be so lucky), but UCLA gave up an average of 5.5 runs per game. The result was a 6-9 mark in Sunday games. In 2013, Poteet was the midweek starter. In midweek games, UCLA gave up an average of 4.1 runs per game (more than one less than the 2014 Sunday mark), while scoring 4.6 runs per game en route to a 7-4 mark. On Sunday in 2013. with Watson on the mound, the Bruins jumped on the opposing Sunday starters for 6.4 runs per game, while giving up only 3.6 runs per game. UCLA went 11-4 in Sunday games in 2013. Thus we have another sharp turnaround (in a negative way) from 2013.
With Poteet on the mound, the Bruins gave up 1.4 runs more per game last year than when he was the starting pitcher in 2013. And with Watson on the mound, the Bruins gave up 0.5 runs more per game last season than in his 2013 starts. With an offense that doesn't score a ton of runs, that is a big difference. If Watson and Poteet can regain their 2013 form, we could be in for another special year.
As mentioned above, Hofstra's best 2015 draft prospect, Nick Kozlowski, will be the opposing starting pitcher on Sunday. Last year, the Pride got beat up in Sunday games, scoring an average of only 2.3 runs per game (less than any other weekend day, which is unusual), while giving up 6.6 runs on average. The result was a 2-7 mark. Maybe that is why Hofstra is saving their most experienced pitcher for Sunday, in an attempt to turn this around. Last year, Kozlowski started 11 games, primarlly as the Friday starter. In his 11 starts, Hofstra finished 6-5, which is pretty solid for a team which finished 20-24 overall. Hofstra gave up an average of 4.9 runs in his starts, which is less than UCLA gave up in Poteet's starts.
One final note- tonight marks the first game with the new college baseballs. The impetus for the change is the decline in home runs after the switch to BBCOR bats. Coach Savage thinks that could be a bigger impact than simply longer fly balls which might leave the yard. Here is his quote from Baseball America-
“I think you’re going to see it be much more offensive than you have the last couple years,” Savage said. “I think the ball is getting through the infield faster. I think the ball is clearly carrying more. But even more than the carry, I think the ball’s just flat hotter. I really do. Infield-wise, I think mobility and range and all those things are of high, high importance now, defensively. I see the ball jumping off the bat quite different. They can say, ‘Oh, it’s 380-395. It’ll carry 15-20 more feet.’ I’m not even really talking about that. I’m just talking about really changing the game. I think it’s going change the game quite a bit. That’s what I’ve seen in the fall, and that’s what I’ve seen in January.”
So infield defense could be key with the new balls. Freshman Sean Bouchard gets significant time at third, Kevin Kramer slides to second, Trent Chatterton slides to second and splits time with freshman NIck Valaika and Luke Persico shifts over to first. Could be interesting. Again, this may not have as much impact on tonight's starter, James Kaprielian, who is a strikeout machine, as it will have on Watson and Poteet and the Hofstra pitchers. If anybody can figure all this out, it is Coach Savage.
For tonight's game, the top choice obviously would be to see the Bruins in person at Jackie Robinson Stadium for opening night. But if you can't make it, you can follow here. This is your open thread. You can also tune in to the UCLA audio feed (link here), and you can follow along with the live stat feed (link here).
Sunday's matchup looks to be the toughest for UCLA on paper. But again, all games start 0-0. Let's hope that the Bruins come out of the gate swinging, and playing solid fundamental ball on their way to a successful start to the 2015 season.
Go Bruins !!