The top seeded UCLA Bruin baseball team (47-8) starts the postseason tonight in the friendly confines of Jackie Robinson Stadium, where it will host the University of Nebraska Omaha Mavericks (31-22-1) in game two of the Los Angeles Regional. First pitch is at 7 pm PT.
But, the Bruins aren’t the first game at JRS today. The Baylor Bears face the Loyola Marymount Lions in game one at 1 pm PT. The winners of today’s games will play tomorrow in the winner’s bracket while the losers will also play tomorrow, with the loser of that game eliminated from the tournament.
Omaha made it into the NCAA postseason by winning the Summit League Baseball Tournament, beating heavily favored Oral Roberts last Sunday, by the score of 4-0. It was the first league title for the Mavericks in program history and this will be Omaha’s first foray into the NCAA postseason field of 64.
Omaha has not played a ranked team all season, but they have played seven games in California this year and should not be cowed by playing in the Los Angeles Regional. The Mavericks played Southern Cal to begin the season, taking one game out of three. They also swept a four-game series at Santa Clara. The best team Omaha played all season was probably Creighton and the Mavericks lost both of those games in home and away midweek contests.
Omaha hit .265 as a team in the regular season, but have only 30 home runs in 54 games. Only one regular starter is hitting above .300, and that would be junior outfielder Parker Smejkal at .333. Smejkal is also tied for the team lead in home runs (6) and leads the team in RBI (40). The remainder of the regular starters hit in the .240 to .280 range, so limiting Smejkal will be a crucial task for UCLA.
Although Omaha’s pitching is average with a team ERA of 4.66, UCLA will face the best, by far, of the Mavericks’ staff tonight in senior right hander, Payton Kinney (11-1, 1.65 ERA). Kinney’s only loss this season was a hard luck loss to South Dakota State, where he threw seven innings and only allowed two runs. Unfortunately for Kinney, his offense was shut out, and did not provide him with any run support. UCLA’s hitters will have their work cut out for them tonight against the pitcher with the eighth-best ERA in the nation.
The Bruins are coming off their best regular season showing in program history, well-deserving of the #1 seed in the postseason. UCLA, however, will need to avoid the kind of let-down they experienced as the top seed in 2015, failing to get out of the L.A. Regional. In fairness, the Bruins’ bats, which failed them in ‘15 (in their two losses, both to Maryland, they only scored one run each game), are much stronger this season.
UCLA is hitting .294 as a team this year, and have threats in the lineup from top to bottom. The squad has hit 56 home runs on the season, and 6.6 runs per game. Freshman catcher, Noah Cardenas is hitting over .400; and Garrett Mitchell, Jack Stronach, Michael Toglia, and Ryan Kreidler are hitting over .300. Although freshman Matt McLain is hitting only .201, more than half of his hits have been for extra bases.
But UCLA’s strength, as usual with John Savage coached teams, is pitching and defense. The Bruins have the best ERA in the nation, allowing only 2.59 runs per nine innings. The Bruins are second in the nation in fielding percentage, at .982, with only one team ahead of them — the Omaha Mavericks at .984.
UCLA will counter the dangerous Payton Kinney by sending Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year Ryan Garcia (9-0, 1.42 ERA) to the hill tonight. Garcia’s ERA is fifth-best in the country. Although Garcia missed his first few starts of the season, he still leads the Bruins in strikeouts with 101.
UCLA’s bullpen has also been lights out this year, with Nate Hadley, Kyle Mora, and Holden Powell locking things down late in the game. Powell has 16 saves on the season, best in the Pac-12 and third in the nation.
Tonight’s game is not the mismatch that many may think. Yes, UCLA would almost certainly win a three-game series against the Mavericks, but who knows what might happen tonight against a pitcher of Kinney’s caliber?
Of course, some could argue that Kinney obtained those gaudy numbers against lesser competition than what UCLA faced this season and they would be correct. Omaha only plated one ranked team. Nevertheless, anything can happen in one game, especially one featuring the eighth-best ERA in the nation (Kinney) versus the fifth-best ERA in the nation (Garcia).
Prepare for a pitcher’s duel tonight, but I still think UCLA gets the win in a low scoring affair.
This is your NCAA Baseball Los Angeles Regional Day one open thread.