The UCLA baseball team (18-5, 5-2 Pac-12) did not start off their series this weekend with Southern Cal (10-14, 3-4 Pac-12) in a good way. In fact, the Bruins, who lost 7-2, looked like they were the underdog and the Trojans looked like the #1 ranked team in the nation. Did the Bruins switch their beautiful road grey uniforms with the Trojans’ garish black sleeveless jerseys and plain white pants?
If only that was the case. The reality is that the Bruins were thoroughly outplayed in every facet of the game.
Zach Pettway (2-2), after enjoying his two best starts of the season, did not have his best stuff and was hit hard early and often. Pettway threw seven innings, allowing seven earned runs, walking three, and only striking out two. His ERA skyrocketed from 2.66 to 4.28 ERA. Pettway had trouble finding the edges of the plate, which is ironic since the home plate umpire was calling the inside strike all night long. This type of performance is not what you want from your Friday ace.
The UCLA defense was well below its usual standard of excellence last night. The Bruins committed two errors, but it wasn’t just the errors. UCLA first baseman Michael Toglia misjudged a pop fly in foul territory and didn’t even get his glove on it. Jack Stronach had a two-out fly ball on the warning track glance off his glove for two RBI double. It was a tough play near the wall in an unfamiliar stadium, but I am sure Stronach would tell you he should have made the play. Conversely, Southern Cal played error-free ball and made several outstanding plays on defense.
Finally, UCLA did not hit the ball well. Looking at the statistics without watching the game, one could say, “Wait, the Bruins had seven hits to the Trojans’ ten, which is not THAT bad.”
To that I have two answers. First, the Trojans had not only bigger hits, but also more timely hits. Southern Cal had three extra base hits, including a two-run home run and two doubles. The guy who hit the first double, Blake Sabol, was one of the two Trojans who scored on the second double, which scored both Sabol and another Trojan baserunner. The Bruins, on the other hand, only had one double, hit by Kevin Kendall in the first inning. Kendall moved to third, but never scored. The Trojans’ big hit results in runs. Such cannot be said for the Bruins’ sole big hit.
Second, UCLA’s plate discipline was poor. Part of that was the umpire’s strike zone, but UCLA failed to adjust. The Bruins looked rushed at the plate all night long. If they were instructed by the coaching staff to be first ball hitters, the strategy didn’t work. UCLA didn’t force Southern Cal starter Conner Lunn to throw a lot of pitches until the fifth inning when (surprise, surprise), UCLA actually scored a run and actually could have had more.
One of the big improvements I have noticed this season from 2018 was UCLA’s discipline at the plate. Last night, the Bruins appeared to revert to last year’s form.
Finally, I will say this: Southern Cal’s sparse crowd of 511 was aggressive and hostile. You could hear it on television. I truly think it rattled the Bruins, who, until last night, had only played seven games away from the friendly confines of Jackie Robinson Stadium. Hopefully, UCLA will block this stuff out today and tomorrow, when the crowds could be larger and even more aggressive and boisterous. If they can’t, I truly fear for the road trips this season against better teams like Stanford and Arizona State.
Today, UCLA needs a win to even the series. A loss today would mean a series loss, which would mean that UCLA would fall from its number one ranking when the new rankings come out on Monday. If last night wasn’t a wake-up call, maybe dropping in the rankings will be.
UCLA will stake its hopes today on Jack Ralston (3-0, 3.09 ERA). Jack started the season well, but had a tough outing last week in the 12-10 UCLA win over Oregon State. Ralston allowed seven runs (five earned) in six innings. He only struck out two. If Pettway can have his worst outing of the year one week after his best, why can’t Ralston can have his best outing today, one week after his worst?
Southern Cal will counter with Isaac Esqueda (2-0, 0.95 ERA), a sophomore lefthander. Although Esqueda started the season as a middle reliever, his last four appearances have been starts, as he has earned his way into the starting rotation on merit. With his sub-1.00 ERA, the Bruins will be hard pressed to put runs on the board against him today.
First pitch today is at 4 pm PT. The beautiful thing about baseball is that things could be completely different from yesterday to today. If they aren’t, UCLA’s reign as the nation’s top team will end on Monday.
This is your UCLA baseball vs. Southern Cal game two open thread.