UCLA baseball heads into postseason after sweeping last regular-season series
Redshirt senior right-hander Kyle Mora tossed 3.2 innings of relief in UCLA baseball’s last postseason game on June 9, 2019. The Bruins are back in the NCAA tournament with the first game of the Lubbock Regional set for Friday night. (David Rimer/Daily Bruin staff)
Friday, 4 p.m.
By Taiyo Keilin
June 3, 2021 3:35 p.m.
After an away sweep in their final series of the regular season, Bruins are on the road again for the first round of their 24th NCAA tournament appearance in program history.
No. 21 UCLA baseball (35-18, 18-12 Pac-12) secured the No. 2 seed in the Lubbock Regional and will open against No. 3 seed North Carolina (27-25, 18-18 ACC) on Friday night from Dan Law Field at Rip Griffin Park. The other two teams in the regional, No. 1 seed Texas Tech (36-15, 14-10 Big 12) – the No. 8 overall seed – and No. 4 seed Army (28-23, 13-10 Patriot League), kick off play with a 9 a.m. first pitch, and the results of the first two games will dictate the blue and gold’s Saturday opponent and game time.
Redshirt senior right-hander Kyle Mora said the Bruins are ready for the regional, having had this weekend on their minds since the beginning of fall ball.
“We’ve been preparing for this moment,” Mora said. “We set out in September saying our window of opportunity doesn’t close until July 1, so we plan on playing in June – we plan on playing throughout June.”
North Carolina is coming off a 1-1 showing in the ACC tournament and a series loss in its season finale on the road at Georgia Tech, while UCLA took all three games from conference foe Arizona State to close out its regular season.
Redshirt senior outfielder Kyle Cuellar said the sweep was big for the visitors, as the team knew any postseason ball it played was going to be on the road in front of audiences at least as big as those at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.
“We probably played in front of our biggest crowds over (at) Arizona State that we’ve played in front of all year, and moving forward, we’re going to be playing in front of big crowds,” Cuellar said. “We can use all that (momentum) and sort of just take it and run with it. We haven’t really been what we wanted to be all year, so I’m hoping that this past weekend at Arizona State can get the ball rolling.”
Friday’s starter for North Carolina, right-hander Austin Love, pitched to the tune of a 3.09 ERA in his freshman season, and the redshirt sophomore cemented his spot as the Tar Heels’ No. 1 in 2021. Love’s 95.1 innings pitched this season comfortably lead the club, and his 120 strikeouts are double the tally of his closest teammate.
Coach John Savage said the coaching staff has a lot of homework to do ahead of regionals, as they will be scouting three different teams for matchups. He praised Love, saying the length he provides North Carolina is typical of an ACC ace.
The Bruins, however, will not be using their ace in game one of the regional with Savage opting for junior right-hander Jesse Bergin, UCLA’s Sunday starter, instead of senior right-hander Zach Pettway – the Friday night hurler for the past three seasons.
“(Bergin) threw the ball extremely well at ASU,” Savage said. “We looked at all kinds of video and we just felt Bergin matched up with (North Carolina). It’s a regional – you got to beat three other teams, and game one is very important that we get off on the right foot, and we just felt, at this stage, that Bergin was the right fit.”
Following Friday’s game, UCLA will face off against either Texas Tech or Army on Saturday. The Bruins are 0-1 all-time against the Red Raiders, with the lone matchup coming in 1999, before a significant portion of the current roster had been born. They are yet to face the Black Knights in school history.
Mora said regardless of the opposition, preparation will be key, with the potential for five games in four days and the magnitude of every pitch in postseason baseball.
“The scale gets a little bit bigger, the pressure gets a little bit bigger and the crowds might get a little bit louder, but it’s the same game we’ve been playing all year, the same game we’ve been playing really our whole life,” Mora said. “Pressure is a privilege. You don’t get into big pressure spots without earning it, so we’ve done a good job getting to this point.”