In the midst of an eight game winning streak, the Bruins’ longest since winning eight in March 2015, the UCLA baseball team (30-10, 14-4 Pac-12) heads to the Sonoran Desert to battle the Arizona Wildcats (25-17, 7-11 Pac-12). This series is a Thursday to Saturday series, unlike most Friday to Sunday series in the Pac-12, so the first pitch is tonight at 6 p.m. PT, from Hi Corbett Field in Tucson.
Although they are struggling of late, having lost five of their last seven games, the Wildcats have claimed series wins over UCLA in each of the last two seasons. The Bruins will look to reverse that trend, continue their streak, and try to keep pace with Stanford atop the Pac-12 rankings (the Bruins and Cardinal are tied for first place, with Stanford at Utah this weekend).
Statistically, Arizona is similar to UCLA, although their numbers are slightly lower than the Bruins in both batting and earned run average. The Wildcats are hitting .286 as a team (4th in the Pac-12) and have scored 286 runs in 41 games (2nd in the Pac-12 to UCLA’s 301 runs).
Like the Bruins, Arizona has four regular starters hitting .300 or better, led by left fielder Alfonso Rivas (.355, 5 HR, 43 RBI). Two other Wildcats hit for power and average, third baseman Nick Quintana (.294, 8 HR, 38 RBI) and second baseman Cameron Cannon (.327, 6 HR, 39 RBI).
Rivas, Quintana, and Cannon are the only three Wildcats who have played in every game this season and, between the three of them, they have accounted for 19 of Arizona’s 24 home runs and 120 of Arizona’s 257 RBI on the year. If the Bruins can keep these three guys relatively quiet, it should bode well for their chances. This is the key to the series, in my opinion.
The Wildcats are also pretty darn good from the mound as well, with a team ERA of 3.50. Arizona’s typical Friday and Saturday starters, Cody Deason (4-4, 2.70 ERA)—who gets the start tonight—and Michael Flynn (5-3, 4.39 ERA), respectively, have been pretty good.
There are questions with respect to the Sunday starter, which is reflected in Head Coach Jay Johnson’s decision to refrain from naming a starter in the series finale this week. Of late, it has been a committee approach with Avery Weems, Juan Aguilera, and Zach Stone all getting starts. Aguilera has started the last two weeks, and no Sunday starter has gone more than 32⁄3 innings in the last four weeks.
The Bruins are clicking right now, both on the mound and at the plate. UCLA’s 12-0 victory over UC Irvine on Tuesday is emblematic of UCLA’s play over the past few weeks. The Bruins rank second in the Pac-12 in batting average (2.96), ERA (.271), fielding percentage (.978), and slugging percentage (.449). UCLA leads in the Pac-12 in on base percentage (.408), doubles (95), and runs scored (301).
The Bruins can beat you with the long ball—UCLA has 32 home runs playing most of their games in a pitcher friendly park—or by playing small ball—the Bruins have executed several squeeze plays on the season. And the 2018 iteration of UCLA baseball still maintains the John Savage trademarks of great pitching and defense.
Jake Bird (5-2, 1.83 ERA) will take the mound for the Bruins tonight. The big right hander is having a stellar senior season, and has earned victories in three of his last four starts. Bird has gone at least 52⁄3 innings in each of his 11 starts on the season, and UCLA has won eight of those games.
UCLA will continue to ride its two horses from the plate, second baseman Chase Strumpf and first baseman, Michael Toglia, each of whom have started every game for the Bruins this season. Both have nine dingers on the year, and each is hitting well (.380 for Strumpf and .346 for Toglia). Strumpf has one less RBI than Toglia, 42 to 43.
Although UCLA head Coach John Savage is known for managing his pitching staff, he deserves huge plaudits for two moves he has made mid-season.
First, Coach Savage moved sophomore left fielder Jeremy Ydens into the leadoff spot and dropped junior center fielder Daniel Amaral into the six hole in the lineup. As a result, both guys have responded, with Ydens hitting .351 and Amaral hitting .338, with 31 RBI (3rd on the team) and a .519 slugging percentage (also 3rd on the team).
Second, Coach Savage inserted freshman shortstop Kevin Kendall into the lineup as the everyday starter, moving Ryan Kreidler into a platoon at third base with Jake Hirabayashi. Kreidler was not hitting well (he still isn’t) and his fielding percentage was less than stellar. Kendall has responded by hitting .304, has done better with the glove in the middle of the infield, and looks to be UCLA’s shortstop of the future.
Truly, this team has been fun to follow this year. If you have not been able to take in a game, this series presents an excellent opportunity to do so, if you have the Pac-12 Networks, that is. All three of the games will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks, with tonight’s game and Saturday’s game on the Pac-12 Network, Pac-12 Arizona, and Pac-12 Los Angeles, and Friday night’s game on Pac-12 Arizona and Pac-12 Los Angeles.
I’ve already rambled on for too long, so I’ll be brief here. Arizona is a good team, but UCLA has a chance to be elite this season. Elite teams should beat good teams on the road. Asking for a sweep might be too much, but I think that UCLA will take two of three games from Arizona this weekend.
This is your UCLA Bruins baseball versus Arizona Wildcats game one open thread.