UCLA baseball is getting hot at the right time.
“In baseball at the end of the year, it’s not always the best team (that wins), it’s the team that’s playing the best,” said senior left fielder Brett Stephens. “If we keep taking some steps forward, we could be that team.”
The Bruins enter their final week of the regular season ranked 51st in RPI after sweeping Utah this past weekend – UCLA was ranked 63rd prior to Friday. The Bruins have also won four straight games dating back to the Washington State series.
UCLA (28-23, 17-10 Pac-12) will look to extend its winning streak Tuesday when it travels to UC Irvine (20-32, 7-14 Big West) for its last midweek bout.
The Anteaters have sputtered since they triumphed over the Bruins 5-3 in their first matchup March 14. UC Irvine has gone just 10-27 since then and has fallen in the RPI rankings by a large margin since the beginning of the season.
But the Anteaters have won three of their last five games and are led by Major League Baseball draft prospect Keston Hiura, who is hitting .411 with a .554 on-base percentage. Hiura is slated at No. 20 in Baseball America’s top 200 draft prospects list.
While UCLA’s offense and pitching have improved considerably since last season, one overlooked aspect has been its defense.
Diving catches from freshman right fielder Michael Toglia and sophomore center fielder Daniel Amaral against Utah highlighted the outfield’s playmaking ability, but UCLA’s defense overall has been consistent all season.
The three starting outfielders – Toglia, Stephens and Amaral – have committed just two errors combined. Junior first baseman Sean Bouchard and freshman second baseman Chase Strumpf each have fielding percentages above .980.
Together, the Bruins own a .981 fielding percentage, tied for eighth-best in the nation and second in the Pac-12, which is better than last year’s mark of .972.
“When you have a good defense, people don’t talk about it a lot,” Stephens said. “We’re a ball-handling team, we’re athletic, we catch the ball … so that’s one of our strengths, and it’s important this time of year.”
Last year, UCLA was already out of the postseason picture at this point. This season, with what coach John Savage called a young mix of talent, the Bruins have put themselves in contention for a return to the NCAA Tournament next month.
“Last year, I know it wasn’t a good feeling going into the last series,” Amaral said. “But this year we’re still playing for something and still getting better and working hard.”
Depth chart notes
Savage said he would be surprised if redshirt sophomore Nick Valaika was ready to play for the weekend series against Oregon, as the shortstop hasn’t thrown or hit yet. He’s been sidelined for nearly two months after suffering a broken hand against California.
With Opening Day third baseman and freshman Ryan Kreidler moving to shortstop, UCLA still lacks an everyday starter. Both sophomore infielder Jake Hirabayashi and freshman infielder Jack Stronach have switched off at the hot corner during the past two weeks.
Redshirt sophomore catcher Daniel Rosica has recaptured his starting spot behind the plate for the time being, as he provided the squad with a much-needed spark against Washington State, Savage said. Rosica compiled four hits in the series against Utah, including a homer after getting through a labrum injury.