Sunday, July 21

Baseball to confront No. 1 Oregon State, toughest challenger yet

(Habeba Mostafa/Daily Bruin)

(Habeba Mostafa/Daily Bruin)

UCLA baseball’s schedule hasn’t been easy.

The Bruins have faced eight teams currently ranked in the top 50 in RPI – five of which are in the top-25 national rankings.

But UCLA (17-16, 9-6 Pac-12) could face its most formidable challenge of the year when it hosts No. 1 Oregon State (30-2, 14-1) this weekend.

“Oregon State has been the best team in the country,” said coach John Savage. “They have played good baseball from the get-go – from the first pitch they haven’t let up, so you’ve got to admire that.”

The Bruins enter the weekend coming off a series win against formerly ranked Stanford last week and a victory over No. 17 Long Beach State on Tuesday.

UCLA has won four of its past five games, but Savage said the momentum shift won’t significantly factor into the series’ outcome.

“I go back to the (former UCLA baseball player) Eric Karros philosophy of that you’re only as good as your starting pitcher in baseball,” Savage said. “I mean you can have momentum, you can play good … but at the end of the day, it’s a new day and a new team coming in this weekend.”

While the Bruins have faced several Major League Baseball draft prospects on the mound this season, the Beavers boast the nation’s most talented pitching staff on paper.

Oregon State ranks first in the nation with a 1.74 team earned run average – three-quarters of a run lower than the second-ranked team – and has allowed a shade over six hits per nine innings. The team has shut out its opponent in eight of its 32 games.

Two upperclassmen headline the Beavers’ staff. Junior ace Luke Heimlich sports a 0.83 ERA and has compiled 70 strikeouts in 65 innings, compared to just 14 walks. Sunday starter Jake Thompson owns a 1.03 ERA and has whiffed 64 batters in 61 innings.

UCLA counters with offense that has been hot throughout conference play. The Bruins own the third-highest team average in the Pac-12 and six of the team’s nine players with 25 or more at-bats in conference play are hitting above .300.

Freshman right fielder Michael Toglia and senior left fielder Brett Stephens struggled early in the season, but both have found their stroke at the plate lately. Stephens enters the series on a nine-game hitting streak and Toglia hit .500 with three homers and seven RBIs over his past six games.

“We’ve stayed pretty consistent for what we’re working on in practice,” Toglia said. “When we’re taking (batting practice), we’re taking it with a purpose, rather than just free-swinging like I would in the fall.”

UCLA may have some work to do in its final 22 games to qualify for the NCAA Tournament in June.

The Bruins rank 67th in RPI, but have plenty of opportunities to increase their tournament standing, as eight of those games are against teams ranked in the top 50 in RPI.

“We’re kind of in a tight spot,” said freshman second baseman Chase Strumpf. “We kind of need to win out a little bit and (winning) two out of three (games) will help us out.”

Contributing reports from Dylan Sanders, Daily Bruin reporter.

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