UCLA baseball’s NCAA Tournament standing is on the rise.
The team’s RPI increased 10 spots to No. 57 after taking a win from No. 1 Oregon State over the weekend, and they currently sit in third place in the Pac-12. Even with Saturday’s victory, coach John Savage said his team’s position isn’t ideal heading into a crucial part of the season.
“I mean, we aren’t in a good position or in a bad position, but not many teams are to be honest,” Savage said. “I’ve been through this enough. You make your name in May or June.”
UCLA (18-18, 10-8 Pac-12) will attempt to earn another ranked win Tuesday at No. 11 Long Beach State (25-13, 10-2 Big West). The Bruins defeated the Dirtbags 2-1 April 18 in an extra-inning bout.
Sophomore Justin Hooper will take the mound for the second time against Long Beach State. He lasted five innings against the Dirtbags in his previous outing, surrendering an unearned run on three hits.
There aren’t many questions that need to be answered about UCLA’s starting lineup and pitching staff, but one that remains regards who will be pitching late in the game.
Senior Scott Burke and junior Jake Bird have seen time as the closer since sophomore Brian Gadsby was removed from the role last month. Burke has allowed six runs in 15 2/3 innings this month. Bird, who’s transitioned into a relief role since his shoulder injury in March, has tossed seven innings in April, yielding seven runs.
Savage was tentative, but said Bird will likely keep the position heading forward, despite receiving two losses against the Beavers on Friday and Sunday.
“He’s capable of doing it, he wants to do it and we believe in him,” Savage said. “Closers are tightrope artists. Those three outs are different, those are the toughest outs in baseball. … But we have complete faith in him.”
The Bruins have shifted the lineup around nearly every week, but recently, few changes have been made.
Several freshmen have cemented their spots in the lineup during the past two weeks. One is third baseman Jack Stronach, who took over the hot corner after freshman Ryan Kreidler moved to shortstop, following a hand injury to redshirt sophomore Nick Valaika last month.
At least five freshmen have started in six of the Bruins’ past seven games, and they have driven in 15 of the team’s 24 runs since the first game of the Stanford series.
“You’re seeing that maturity level from the freshmen which feels like we have a bunch of veterans on the team,” said junior first baseman Sean Bouchard. “Even though they’re freshmen on paper, I feel like they’re playing like older guys.”
UCLA is undefeated against current ranked teams in one-game matchups but have struggled in three-game series.
The Bruins won just one of three series against teams in the top 25 so far – all of which have been against Pac-12 opponents.
Despite the lack of series wins, the Bruins have yet to be swept by a ranked team. Players said that their competitiveness, especially this past weekend, has shown they can contend both in the Pac-12 and the nation.
“OSU is No. 1 in the nation and we were with them the whole time,” Stronach said. “It just shows that we can play with anybody.”