UCLA is the team nobody in the country wanted to face in an NCAA baseball regional, so you can imagine how San Francisco coach Nino Giarratano felt when he found out his team received the unenviable honor of playing the Bruins first.
“I was petrified,” Giarratano said.
The UCLA pitching staff tends to have that reaction on opposing coaches.
Juniors Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer give the Bruins the best 1-2 pitching punch in college baseball and Adam Plutko and Zack Weiss add the type of pitching depth that can help a staff dominate a regional by putting zeros on the board.
Cole (6-7), who will start UCLA’s regional opener against San Francisco Friday at 6 p.m. at Jackie Robinson Stadium, is projected by some as the No. 1 pick in Monday’s MLB draft because of his ability to consistently throw fastballs in the 95-97 range and regularly top 100. He also mixes in a hard cutting slider and a devastating changeup.
Bauer (12-2) leads the nation with 189 strikeouts, 4.72 hits allowed per nine innings and is fifth with a 1.27 ERA. He was named Pac-10 pitcher of the year, is among the favorites to win national pitcher of the year and is a projected top-five pick in the MLB draft.
Add in Plutko (6-4), a blossoming freshman with a 2.16 ERA in 14 starts, and Weiss (5-3), the freshman whose 2.79 ERA and 5.9 hits allowed per nine innings stack up nicely against any fourth starter in the country, and you can see why the Bruins strike fear in the minds of anyone who must face them in a short series.
“It was fun for us to face them the first time, but I’m not so sure we ever wanted to see them again,” said Giarratano, whose team scored only one run while getting swept in a three-game, season-opening series at UCLA. “They’re that good.”
Indeed, UCLA ranks fourth in the nation with a team ERA of 2.45 and is second with 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings and also second with 6.57 hits allowed per nine innings. The Bruins used similar dominant pitching to win a regional last year, giving up only six runs in three games, as they propelled themselves toward a runner up finish in the College World Series.
It's not all good news on the UCLA pitching front, however. Left-handed reliever Mitchell Beacom, tied for the team lead with 25 appearances, is out for the regional with a broken foot. Beacom (0-2) is one of only two lefties in the UCLA bullpen and he last pitched May 20 against California. He broke his foot in an off-field accident at home and will be re-evaluated prior to the super regionals if UCLA advances, Savage said.
Still, the bullpen might not be needed all that much. Bauer has nine complete games this season, including eight in a row, while Cole has pitched into the seventh inning in 12 of his 15 starts and has four complete games.
“We feel good about our pitching,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “It’s been our strength all year and there is no secret to that. We learned last year how good pitching and defense can carry you a long way and we want to make sure we go to those strengths again.”
UCLA isn’t the only team in this regional that can claim pitching and defense as strengths. In fact, in lieu of any “regional of death” this year, the selection committee seems to have created a “regional of pitching and defense.”
UCLA ranks No. 4 in ERA and No. 23 in fielding percentage; Fresno State is No. 12 in ERA and No. 34 in fielding percentage; UC Irvine is No. 18 in ERA and No. 4 in fielding percentage and USF is No. 2 in the nation in fielding percentage.
“It’s always about pitching and defense in the post season and from that standpoint it’s pretty clear that this is a very strong regional,” UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said. “It’s as strong as any regional out there.”
UCLA, Fresno State and UC Irvine each boast All-American caliber starting pitchers who rank in the top 17 in the nation in ERA. Greg Gonzalez (11-0, 1.43) of Fresno State and Matt Summers (10-2, 1.74) of UC Irvine will probably face each other in the opening game of the regional, though Fresno State coach Mike Batesole has yet to officially announce his rotation.
But UCLA has two national-caliber aces and that makes the Bruins an odds-on favorite heading in to the regional, according to Gillespie.
“They have the two real special guys pitching and they are playing at home,” he said. “That makes them the obvious team to beat.”
San Francisco will be without its ace. Matt Lujan, who dueled Cole in UCLA’s 1-0 season-opening victory over the Dons, was scheduled to undergo Tommy John surgery Wednesday after injuring a ligament in his pitching elbow during a bullpen session May 7.
Kyle Zimmer (5-4, 4.14), the losing pitcher in UCLA's 4-1 victory on Feb. 19, and Matt Hiserman (6-3, 4.01), who took the loss in a 3-0 UCLA victory on Feb. 20, have moved up in the rotation and one of them will probably get the start Friday. Even with the loss of Lujan and the rotation shuffle, the Dons (31-23) managed to win six of their last seven games to clinch the West Coast Conference title.
“We developed a toughness and a chemistry throughout the season,” Giarratano said. “And we’ve proven that defense is something we can perform. We’ve shown that we have the capability of keeping ourselves in games with our defense.”
Eventually, though, you have to score some runs and nobody knows better than Giarratano how difficult that will be against UCLA.
“My first thought was that I was happy that we got in the tournament,” he said. “But when we found out we were going to UCLA it hit me. You ask our kids who the best arms we saw all season and 53 games later they will still tell you it was Cole and Bauer.”
at Jackie Robinson Stadium, located near Sepulveda and Constitution in West L.A.
Game 1: No. 3 UC Irvine (39-16) vs. No. 2 Fresno State (40-14), 2 p.m.
Game 2: No. 1 UCLA (33-22) vs. San Francisco (31-23), 6 p.m.
Game 3: Game 1 loser vs Game 2 loser, 2 p.m.
Game 4: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 6 p.m.
Game 5: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser, 2 p.m.
Game 6: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 6 p.m.
MONDAY (if necessary)
Game 7: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner
All-session reserved: $80 adult, $65 student (includes reserved seating for all games)
All-session general admission: $55 adult, $50 student (includes general admission seating for all games)
Available online though UCLA’s central ticket office or by calling (310) 825-2101.
Single-game tickets will be available if all-session tickets do not sell out.