A trio of familiar foes stand between UCLA baseball and its first super regional appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2013.
UCLA enters the regional round having already faced each of the three teams in its pool – No. 9 Long Beach State, Texas and San Diego State. UCLA went a combined 2-5 against the three teams in the regular season, but its familiarity with each opponent could be key heading into the weekend.
“We’ve seen (each team) twice so we have a good idea of what they’ve got,” said junior first baseman Sean Bouchard. “Just knowing what each team has – their strengths, their weaknesses … I think that definitely helps a lot.”
UCLA (30-25) takes on Texas (37-22) on Friday in Long Beach to kick off regional play. The Longhorns swept the Bruins in a nonconference series in March, outscoring them 20-11.
Texas’ offense punished UCLA in their previous series, but the Big 12 club is known for its pitching staff, which ranks ninth in the nation in ERA.
The Bruins could face either of the Longhorns’ top two starters, Morgan Cooper or Nolan Kingham, in Friday’s matchup. Cooper owns the best numbers of any Texas starter, posting a 2.32 ERA through 81 1/3 innings, but Kingham is the usual Friday starter for the squad.
Junior ace Griffin Canning will get the nod for UCLA in the bout. But coach John Savage is uncertain of how the rest of the weekend could play out for the pitching staff, as sophomore Jon Olsen or junior Jake Bird are both candidates to start Saturday’s games.
The Bruins’ bullpen possesses multiple pitchers with experience in late-inning situations. Five relievers have had more than 20 appearances.
Savage said he always has an idea of who could pitch after his starters exit the game, but that it could be altered based on matchups.
“We’ve got to be smart, we’ve got to have roles, but we’ve got to adapt a little bit and change things around,” Savage said. “We’ve tried to put our guys in the best possible place to have success – that’s what coaching is. But it doesn’t always pan out.”
The Bruins, marred by multiple injuries, faced a few rough stretches throughout the year. Now, coming off a third-place finish in the Pac-12, the team is almost at full strength entering the weekend’s contests.
Freshman designated hitter Kyle Cuellar will return to the lineup after missing four weeks due to illness. Savage said the right-handed hitter, who hit .327 before his absence, provides depth in the middle of UCLA’s lineup. Redshirt sophomore shortstop Nick Valaika, who suffered a broken hand in March, could also return.
Players said dealing with these stints of adversity throughout the regular season could be an advantage in the postseason.
“A lot of these teams haven’t quite had the ups and downs that we have had,” Olsen said. “We know how to take some hits and take some blows, and I think that’s going to help us in the regional.”