While most are thinking about March Madness and the UCLA basketball team moving on to the Round of 32, the UCLA baseball team is quietly ranked #9 in the nation by USA Today, and hosts the Utah Utes this weekend for a three game series . This is your UCLA vs. Utah baseball series preview and Friday night game open thread.
The Utah Utes come to Westwood with an overall record of 7-12 (2-1 in PAC 12 play). Their most notable accomplishments were taking 2 of 3 from the Kansas Jayhawks in Lawrence (Kansas is now 8-12) and 2 of 3 from the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson last weekend. The ‘Cats were 15-4 before that series, so the Bruins cannot overlook Utah at at home, prior to traveling to Pullman next weekend for their first PAC 12 road series of the season against Washington State.
UCLA jumped out to a 12-1 record this season, before coming back to earth while going 0-3 two weekends ago, losing to the #1, #5, and #12 (USA Today) ranked teams in the nation. UCLA bounced back by securing the series win at home against the Washington Huskies last week, opening PAC 12 play. Utah sits tied with UCLA for first (along with 3 other teams) in the PAC 12, with identical 2-1 records.
What Can We Expect from Utah?
Right-hander, Bret Helton (1-2; 4.28 ERA), is Utah’s typical Friday starter and is expected to start against UCLA. Helton's losses were to the aforementioned Jayhawks and Wildcats. The Bruins will look to make quick work of Helton, capitalizing in the early innings. Utah will likely throw junior right-hander, Dalton Carroll (3-2; 3.33 ERA), on Saturday, and freshman right-hander, Jayson Rose (1-2; 3.76 ERA), on Sunday.
On the offensive side of things, Utah doesn’t score a lot of runs in the early innings, but has scored in bunches late in games (including 9 runs in the 8th and 9th innings in the Utes’ comeback win against Arizona last Sunday). Utah gets a lot of production from 2B Cody Scaggari (.303, 3 HR, 12 RBI), usually hitting out of the 2 hole. CF, Wyler Smith, the usual clean-up hitter, is batting .418 and is always a threat to steal. Lead-off hitter, Kody Davis is hitting over .300, and Dallas Carroll and Max Schuman have 13 and 12 RBI respectively. There is a drop off in Utah’s production after these top 5 hitters in the lineup. The Utes are 5-9 against right-handed starters, which bodes well for UCLA’s Friday starter, James Kaprielian.
What Can We Expect from the Bruins?
UCLA, 14-5 (2-1 in the PAC 12), is coming off a series win at home against U-Dub, punctuated by a 13 inning classic that the Bruins won 5-4, in which the Bruins’ usual closer, Davis Berg, got the win after pitching a career high 6 innings (!!!!!), all of which were scoreless.
On Friday, UCLA will throw Kaprielian, who is 4-1 with a 2.59 ERA in 31.1 innings pitched. Kaprielian averages 6 innings pitched per game. In situations where UCLA is leading, it appears that Head Coach John Savage is settling into form with respect to his staff, when circumstances (good circumstances) allow. From what I can see, if UCLA is winning and the starter is close to his pitch limit, he’ll go 6 innings; then, if all goes to plan, we see Tucker Forbes in the 7th, Grant Dyer in the 8th, and Dave Berg in the 9th.
Although all three are righties, they come at you with different styles, making adjustments difficult for the batters and making it difficult for hitters to "go to school" on the pitcher. Forbes is 6’8", so his release point is very high and he throws hard. Grant Dyer has a nasty, top-to-bottom breaking ball that appears to be his "out" pitch. Dyer consistently throws his curve for strikes. And, of course, you have the submariner, Berg, who has a large arsenal of off-speed and breaking pitches, which are made even more difficult to hit from his unique release point. Each one is a change of pace.
The Bruins, like the Utes, continue to get consistent production from the top of their lineup. Lead off hitter, Kevin Kramer, is hitting .425, with 8 walks and 8 hit-by-pitches, for .528 on-base percentage. It is nice to have your lead-off guy getting on more than half the time. Ty Moore is hitting .370, Chris Keck is doing it all (.354, 6 HRS and 23 RBI). Luke Persico is hitting .307 with 18 RBI. Brett Stephens is explosive but is battling back from a finger injury suffered in the North Carolina series in Orlando, Florida.
Last Thoughts . . .
It is critical for UCLA to bank as many home wins as possible this season, with almost all of the difficult series coming on the road, including at Oregon, at Arizona State, at Southern Cal, and at Stanford. A sweep would be great. A series win would be adequate. UCLA does not want to lose this series. Let’s see how the Bruins handle the Utes this weekend. No TV, but live audio can be found here and live stats can be followed here. Series dates and times are as follows:
Friday, March 20, 6 p.m. PT
Saturday, March 21, 2 p.m. PT (no overlap with basketball unless the basketball game is loooooong)
Sunday, March 22, 1 p.m. PT
This is your open thread. Go Bruins!!!!!!!!