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UCLA Baseball Seeks to Pluck the Ducks in Eugene

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UCLA tries to remain perfect in season series wins as it travels north to Oregon to take on the Ducks in the final regular season series of the year.

UCLA's Brett Stephens is hot with the bat right now, going 13 for his last 26, with 6 RBI and 6 runs scored
UCLA's Brett Stephens is hot with the bat right now, going 13 for his last 26, with 6 RBI and 6 runs scored
© Steve Jacobs, 2015

The UCLA Bruins baseball team (41-12; 21-6 PAC 12) will travel to Eugene, Oregon this weekend to take on the Oregon Ducks (35-22; 14-13 PAC 12) in the final regular-season series of the year. Although the Bruins have already locked up the PAC 12 title (their third in the last five years under Head Coach, John Savage), this series has significance for UCLA with respect to national seating in the postseason. The series is also significant for the Ducks, as they are vying for an at large bid in the postseason.

THE STATISTICAL MATCH-UP

Oregon is batting .252 as a team, (7th in the PAC 12) and has a team ERA of 3.71 (7th in the PAC 12). The Bruins have a .292 batting average (4th in the PAC 12) and a team ERA of 2.09 (1st in the PAC 12 and 1st in the nation). UCLA is 33rd in the nation (and 3rd in the PAC 12) in fielding percentage, at .976. The Ducks are 143rd in the nation, at .967. So, the Bruins lead the Ducks in the hitting, pitching, and fielding team statistics. In baseball, however, statistics do not necessarily win the day.

THE OREGON DUCKS

The Oregon Ducks, even with their 35-22 record, are presently NOT predicted to be in the postseason field of 64 by most prognosticators. Before they beat the Oregon State Beavers on Tuesday, Oregon’s RPI was in the low 70s. Now they sit at 64. The lowest RPI ever for an at large bid into the NCAA college baseball postseason was 56.

Several prognosticators believe that if Oregon can sweep the Bruins, or even take the series, either of which would substantially improve their RPI, they would make a strong case for inclusion in the postseason field. Oregon has won their last seven games, including a series sweep at Utah last weekend, and will be especially hungry to play their best against the Bruins and show the college baseball world that they should be included in the field of 64.

Only one Oregon player who consistently starts is hitting over .300. That would be Mitchell Tolman, who is hitting .332, with 40 RBI and 42 runs scored. Tolman has 3 dingers and 19 doubles (tied for the league lead with UCLA’s Chris Keck). Tolman also leads the PAC 12 on-base percentage, at .467. Phil Craig-St. Louis and Brandon Cuddy have both driven in 35 runs for the Ducks.

Oregon’s Friday and Saturday starters, Cole Irvin and David Peterson, who lead the Ducks in innings pitched, have ERAs of 4.05 and 4.62, respectively. Both have losing records. They have some very good pitchers out of the bullpen, however, including Jack Karraker (1.29 ERA in 28 innings pitched), Stephen Nogosek (1.82 ERA in 49.1 innings pitched), and their closer, Garrett Cleavinger, who has 9 saves and a 1.75 ERA, with 63 strikeouts to just 16 walks in 36 innings pitched. UCLA would like to avoid having to face Cleavinger with the game on the line.

THE UCLA BRUINS

The Bruins are hot, having won their last five (including a series sweep of Arizona, ruining the ‘Cats slim chances for postseason play) and nine of their last ten. Today’s starter, James Kaprielian, was named PAC 12 Pitcher of the Week on the strength of his performance last Friday night, in which he combined with Dave Berg for UCLA’s first no-hitter ever

The Bruins are sitting pretty for a national seed. At the time of this writing, two of the teams seemingly in line for national seeds, TCU, which was the first team eliminated from the Big 12 conference tournament, and Illinois, which had its 27 game winning streak snapped but is still alive in the losers’ bracket in the Big 10 conference tournament, have lost this week. Florida has also lost and it making its way through the SEC loser's bracket.  All of the other top teams in the running for a national seed (i.e., LSU, Louisville, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Miami) are doing well in their conference tournaments.

The PAC 12 is one of the major conferences that does not have a conference tournament, opting instead for a full "round robin" between all eleven teams. So UCLA needs to finish the regular season on a positive note to keep pace with the above-referenced teams.

On offense, Brett Stephens in swinging a very hot bat, raising his batting average to .331, ninth in the PAC 12. Ty Moore is hitting .350 (4th in the conference) with 47 RBI (3rd in the conference). The Bruins have three batters in the top ten for on-base percentage: Kevin Kramer at .430; Moore at .425; and Stephens at .423. More importantly, UCLA is at the point where every batter in the lineup is dangerous and it seems as if a different hero steps up from a hitting perspective game in and game out.

UCLA’s pitching continues to be lights out, and now sports the top ERA in the nation. James Kaprielian and Grant Watson were amazing in their respective Friday and Saturday outings last weekend.

As you can see below, Hunter Virant will get the Sunday start for the Bruins. I assume Griffin Canning continues to suffer from back spasms. Maybe Coach Savage is trying to keep him rested for the postseason. Regardless, the lack of certainty at the Sunday starting pitcher position raises concerns because that spot in the rotation is so critical on the road to Omaha.

UCLA’s bullpen is in great shape. The Bruins are undefeated when they lead after 6 innings, a remarkable achievement, and a testament to Tucker Forbes, Grant Dyer and, of course, David Berg, who leads the PAC 12 (and is 3rd in the nation) in ERA at 0.79.

THIS WEEKEND’S MATCH-UP

The following are the date, times, and starting pitchers for the series:

Friday, May 22, 4:00 p.m. PT:

UCLA - James Kaprielian, RHP. Jr. (8-4; 1.94 ERA)

Oregon – Cole Irvin, LHP, So. (2-4, 4.05 ERA)

Saturday, May 23, 7:00 p.m. PT

UCLA - Grant Watson, LHP, Sr. (8-4; 2.02 ERA)

Oregon - David Peterson, LHP, Fr. (4-6, 4.62 ERA)

Sunday, May 10, 12:00 p.m. PT

UCLA – Hunter Virant, LHP, So. (0-1; 3.05 ERA)

Oregon - Josh Graham, RHP, Jr. (4-1, 2.70 ERA)

The entire series will be televised on the PAC 12 Network, including this afternoon’s 4:00 p.m. PT start. John Ramey and Tim Wilhelm will have the call for all three games via streaming online audio.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Bruins will be fighting to hold on to a national seed. The higher the better. UCLA wants to avoid a situation in which it may be forced to play a PAC 12 foe in the Super Regional. Frankly, that would be unfair to UCLA and the PAC 12. Of course, the NCAA would never match up, say LSU and Texas A&M (SEC rivals) or Florida State and Miami (ACC rivals) in a Super Regional. Although they cannot control the match-up, UCLA can control how high of a seed they get with a solid series win on the road. Oregon will be hungry for a series win (or better) at home. They will lay it all on the line to extend their season. I predict that the series will be tied going into Sunday’s game and, as such, the winner or loser of the series will come down to Sunday's match-up and the final game of the regular season.

This is your UCLA vs. Oregon Game One open thread.

Goooooooo Bruins!!!!