UCLA baseball has had to get accustomed to playing close games.
Of the team’s first 12 games, eight were decided by one run. Coach John Savage said the outcome of each bout could have stemmed from a single pitch.
The Bruins have avoided one-run affairs recently because of their rejuvenated offense. They won seven of their previous eight games – with just two decided by one run – and averaged more than 10 runs in those contests.
“We were losing games on one pitch and that’s tough sledding, tough business,” Savage said. “When you score runs, it opens up games and it allows us to be able not to sit on one mistake all night.”
UCLA (13-12, 6-3 Pac-12) carries its offensive momentum into a midweek matchup with San Diego State (20-9, 8-3 Mountain West) on Tuesday at Lake Elsinore, California. The Bruins have owned a 12-8 record against the Aztecs since 2000.
UCLA’s freshmen have been a key catalyst for the offense recently.
The first years struggled to adapt at the plate early on, as they hit a combined .237 throughout the team’s first 17 games.
But Savage said he has seen them mature at the plate in the past two weeks. They garnered a .337 batting average and contributed 40 RBIs – nearly half of the team’s runs – in the recent eight-game stretch.
Freshman designated hitter Kyle Cuellar headlines the class and has established himself as the club’s cleanup hitter throughout the past month. The left-handed batter is hitting a team-high .400 and owns a .507 on-base percentage.
“They’re hitting mistakes and they’re a lot less susceptible to certain pitches and certain counts,” Savage said. “They were (hitting into) cookie-cutter outs early in the season, and it seems really apparent that they’re growing up, they’re battling and they’re seeing the ball much better.”
While the Bruins’ offense has kicked into gear recently, the Aztecs’ hitters have been consistent throughout most of the season. Entering the week, San Diego State ranked 28th in the nation in batting average – seven players on the squad sport a .300-plus average.
Much of the team’s power comes from junior outfielder Tyler Adkison, who is hitting .437 with a .544 on-base percentage and a .859 slugging percentage. He ranked in the top five in the nation for each respective category entering the week.
Savage typically puts sophomore Justin Hooper on the bump for midweek games, but he was hesitant to name him as the starter against the Aztecs. The southpaw struggled in each of his past three outings, failing to make it past the fourth inning in each one.
UCLA has multiple options for the spot start if Hooper doesn’t get the nod, including freshman Nick Scheidler and junior Jake Bird, who has made two relief appearances in the past week since returning from a shoulder injury.
Bird allowed just one earned run in 13 innings before he suffered the setback.
“We’ll see how it shakes down,” Savage said. “We’ve got another major weapon back (in Bird), which is always good to see. We need to get Hooper going – that’s the key. If we can get Hooper going, you can see something really good.”