The Bruins and Bulldogs finished the season on different paths, but they will come to blows Friday morning.
No. 2 seed UCLA baseball (36-19, 19-11 Pac-12) will face off against No. 3 seed Gonzaga (32-22) in the opener of the double-elimination Minneapolis Regional. After closing the season on a 6-8 stretch, the Bruins won their season finale against Oregon State, but were unable to secure a home regional. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, are 12-3 in their last 15 games.
UCLA and Gonzaga have faced off in three series since the turn of the century, and UCLA has won all of them two games to one. Gonzaga stole the series opener in 10 innings in the most recent series in 2017. The Bruins came back and won the next two games 6-1 and 5-4.
Senior right-hander Jake Bird started the Saturday game against Gonzaga, tossing six innings and recording seven strikeouts without allowing an earned run. Despite tossing a quality start against the Bulldogs last year, Bird said he thinks he’s in an even better position this time around.
“There’s a decent amount of same hitters in their lineup, and I think I’m a lot better pitcher this year,” Bird said.
Bird has a conference-leading 1.99 ERA and a 7-4 record this season. He has pitched a career-high 104 innings this year, including two complete games over the past three weeks.
“I feel like I’m getting stronger week by week,” Bird said. “My arm’s in shape enough to throw every day, so hopefully I get to throw the whole thing Friday and then coach allows me to throw the rest of the weekend.”
Coach John Savage has used a sophomore-heavy lineup this season, but only three were everyday starters when the Bruins played the Bulldogs last year. Those three sophomores – first baseman Michael Toglia, second baseman Chase Strumpf and third baseman Ryan Kreidler – were a combined 2-for-11 in the loss to Gonzaga last year, but bounced back to hit .300 in the next two games.
Strumpf had a solo home run in game two of that series – the first of his UCLA career. That game was at home, however, and the righty said that the Bruins need to adapt to playing on the road and step up to the challenge in the postseason.
“I think it’s (about) being able to take that crowd with you,” Strumpf said. “Make it your own environment, make it feel like you’re at home.”
UCLA is 22-6 at home in 2018, but 14-13 outside of Jackie Robinson Stadium.
The Bruins went to a regional last season, but have not advanced to a super regional since they won the College World Series in 2013. Strumpf started in both of UCLA’s postseason games last year, and said that he learned that baseball is much different in June.
“I think the biggest thing is that the game is never over,” Strumpf said. “Keep playing the game regardless of the score. If we go up big, we go down big right away, there’s plenty of time to come back.”
Strumpf was 1-for-8 in the regional last year, but hit .357 with a team-leading 12 home runs in his sophomore season.
This postseason will be Bird’s final stretch as a Bruin, and he said that while he hasn’t done a lot of reflecting on his four years in Westwood, he has been looking forward to this weekend for a long time.
“I’m just really excited, this is what I’ve been waiting for since I made the decision to come back for my senior year,” Bird said. “It’s another chance at a national championship. … I’m excited for the opportunity this Friday to get going and win a regional.”
First pitch for the Bruins and Bulldogs is at 11 a.m. Friday, and win or lose, UCLA will next play Saturday.