The Bruins won’t win the Pac-12 title this season, but that doesn’t mean that this weekend’s conference series is any less important.
“Well, like coach (John) Savage has been saying,” said freshman second baseman Chase Strumpf. “We’re playing for our lives this weekend.”
UCLA baseball (25-23, 14-10 Pac-12) will get a shot to pad its postseason resume with a three-game set against Utah (24-21, 12-12), the final home series of the season. The Bruins only have six games left to cement their spot in the Pac-12 standings.
“You want to finish above other people,” Savage said. “With no league tournament, those standings jump out at you.”
UCLA enters the series in third place in the conference of champions, one game behind Stanford and two games ahead of four .500 teams, including Utah. Oregon State has already clinched the Pac-12 championship.
Savage said he’s hoping six Pac-12 teams make the tournament and that the worst case scenario would be just four schools making it out of the Pac-12.
Though Utah’s .500 conference record is far from the performance that won them the Pac-12 last year, the Utes will return several players from that 2016 team – including the weekend pitching rotation.
“They won the Pac last year,” Savage said. “That’s all you really need to know.”
The Utes rank sixth in the Pac-12 in ERA, but their weekend starters sport a combined 4.32 ERA. Ace Jayson Rose has been consistent throughout much of the season, yielding more than three runs in just two of his 13 outings.
A pair of juniors headline Utah’s bullpen. Trenton Stoltz owns a team-low 1.47 ERA in 18 1/3 innings and hasn’t allowed a run in conference play, while Tanner Thomas boasts a 2.18 ERA with a strikeout-to-walk ratio just below 2.
Ute relievers enter the series on a hot streak, surrendering just two earned runs in 12 2/3 innings against USC on the weekend.
The Bruins are back to the rotation they started the season with for the second straight weekend. Junior Griffin Canning will handle Friday night. Last weekend, the projected first-round pick gave up four runs in seven innings.
Junior Jake Bird will make his second start since reclaiming the Saturday spot, and sophomore Jon Olsen will make his 13th start of the year.
“Griffin has been Griffin on Fridays, he’s gotta bounce back, obviously from a subpar start. Bird still needs to get going to get back to where he was,” Savage said. “Olsen’s been really good on Sundays, very consistent. … That’s where we’re at.”
One Ute who could give the Bruin rotation trouble is third baseman Dallas Carroll, who is slashing .369/.461/.559. Savage called him one of the MVPs of the league.
Redshirt sophomore shortstop Nick Valaika got his cast off this week, and took ground balls at Jackie Robinson Stadium on Thursday. Savage said that he does not expect Valaika to be ready for this weekend.
Freshman designated hitter Kyle Cuellar will continue to be sit out due to illness.