The UCLA Bruin baseball team (19-9, 8-4 PAC 12) will look to shake off a disappointing midweek loss at Long Beach State and extend its lead in the PAC 12 Conference this weekend in Salt Lake City against the Utah Utes (9-22, 4-5 PAC 12). Don’t be fooled by Utah’s record: this team earned a home series win over the Oregon State Beavers two weeks ago.
Before the Utah series, the Beavers only had two losses on the season. Anything can happen on the road in the PAC 12.
Utah stated off the season 0-13. Ouch. Since then, they have gone 8-9, including 4-5 in the PAC 12 and, as stated above, took two of three against what many thought to be the #1 team in the nation, Oregon State. The Utes are unpredictable, somewhat reminiscent of the 2016 Utah team that won the PAC 12 Conference and went to the postseason, but had an overall record under .500.
Utah hits the ball pretty well (.273 team average) and their top hitter, DaShawn Keirsey, Jr. (.410, 3 HR, 16 RBI) is pretty darn good. But he is really the only standout. The Utes spread the love around, with six batters driving in more than 10 runs on the season.
Utah’s achilles’ heal appears to be the pitching staff. A 5.22 team ERA is nothing to be proud of. Further, each of Utah’s starting pitchers has an ERA in the mid or upper fours. Tonight’s starter, junior lefty, Johs Tedeschi (0-6, 4.83 ERA) has yet to win a game this season. Utah’s closer, Trenton Stoltz (1-1), has only four saves and a 4.43 ERA. This is a staff that could be susceptible to UCLA’s potent lineup.
I want to talk a little bit about Chase Strumpf today. UCLA’s sophomore second baseball is killing it for the Bruins from the plate this season.
Last year, as a true freshman, Strumpf hit .239, with seven home runs and 30 RBI, starting all but one game for the Bruins. Although his numbers were not eye-popping, Strumpf did have some clutch hits in big situation last year.
In our 2018 UCLA Baseball Season Preview, we pointed out that several players, one of which was Strumpf, needed to up their games this season. Mr. Strumpf has answered the call, and then some. Chase is hitting .317 (second on the team), and already has more home runs (8) and RBI (32) than last season. He leads the team in those categories, and also leads the team in slugging percentage, hits, and bases-on-balls.
Strumpf also came up big in a huge series last weekend versus Stanford, and his performance, along with a strong showing in the midweek game last week, resulted in him being named PAC 12 Player of the Week.
Simply stated, Chase Strumpf is a big reason for UCLA’s success this season.
Another guy who had a great week last week was the guy who will take the hill tonight for the Bruins, Jake Bird (3-2, 1.54 ERA). Bird threw 7 and 1⁄3 innings of 2 run ball against Stanford last Friday night, earning the win and helping the Bruins take the first game of the three game set. It will be interesting to see how Bird, the consummate ground ball pitcher will fare in the altitude of Salt Lake City.
UCLA’s pitching staff has been restored with the return of Jon Olsen who, at least for the time being, will slot in as the Sunday starter. There are also rumblings that Kyle Molnar is close to returning to action for the first time since 2016. Good news indeed,
UCLA appears to have the pitching advantage over the Utes based on the respective ERAs of the teams’ starters, but how much does altitude have to do with that? Smith’s ballpark is located at 4,230 feet above sea-level, and the thin air put pitchers at a disadvantage. How much does that hurt Utah’s hurlers and how much better would their numbers be throwing in a pitcher’s park such as Jackie Robinson Stadium? Interesting questions.
I still think that UCLA should win this series. But, they should have beaten Long Beach State too, a team with a similar record to Utah’s. A series loss this weekend would be a bitter pill to swallow for the Bruins. I think that UCLA will rise to the occasion and take two of three from the Utes.
This is your UCLA Bruins versus Utah Utes game one open thread.