The days of UCLA just being excited to be in an NCAA regional or even win a regional are well in the past.
When the Bruins defeated UC Irvine to win the Los Angeles Regional last week, those in the dugout trotted out to the infield to meet their teammates. There was no dog piling or crazy celebration. Just high fives and smiles.
The Bruins mean business and know the importance of this weekend’s series against Cal State Fullerton.
The Titans have been a thorn in the Bruins’ side the past few seasons. It’s only fitting that in a year the Bruins are expected to reach the College World Series they must go through the Titans.
Cal State Fullerton wasn’t as dominant as UCLA in its regional last weekend. The Titans dropped the regional opener to Minnesota before storming back to win the regional with two wins against the Golden Gophers.
Nick Ramirez and others rose to the occasion for the Titans.
Outside of the Texas-TCU series, there is not a super regional matchup with as much intrigue as the series between the Titans and Bruins.
The Bruins once again find themselves on the receiving end of much pressure.
In the past, the Bruins haven’t handled pressure too well. This year’s team has been much different, though.
Perhaps that trend continues this weekend.
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This series couldn’t be much better from a pitching standpoint.
Cal State Fullerton has one of the nation’s best pitching staffs and enters the series with an impressive 3.70 ERA. UCLA, though, is the nation’s second-best staff behind Texas and enters the series with a fabulous 2.94 ERA.
UCLA gets the nod over the Titans because of its weekend rotation, which includes Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer and Rob Rasmussen.
Cole has been iffy in the control department at times this season, but still has great numbers. He is 10-2 with a 3.11 ERA in 101 1/3 innings. He has struck out 131 and walked 47, and opponents are hitting just .194 against him.
Bauer was phenomenal against LSU in the Los Angeles Regional and has a 2.72 ERA in 109 1/3 innings. He has struck out 135 and walked 35, and teams are hitting just .246 against him. Rasmussen, meanwhile, has a 2.90 ERA in 90 innings. He has struck out 108 and walked 27, and teams are hitting just .220 against him.
Also keep an eye on Garett Claypool, Dean Klein, Matt Grace and Erik Goeddel. Claypool is a usual midweek starter but could serve as a shutdown reliever in a crucial situation this weekend. Klein has appeared in 35 games and has a 2.03 ERA, Grace has appeared in 30 games and has a 3.24 ERA, and Goeddel has appeared in 33 games and has a 3.33 ERA in 46 innings.
The Titans aren’t far behind on the mound.
Starting pitchers Noe Ramirez and Daniel Renken lead the way, while Dylan Floro has been an excellent replacement for Tyler Pill.
Ramirez has a 2.63 ERA in 99 1/3 innings. He has struck out 106 and walked 17, and teams are hitting just .230 against him. Renken has a 3.95 ERA in 100 1/3 innings. He has struck out 88 and walked 37, and teams are hitting .264 against him. Floro, meanwhile, has a 3.08 ERA in 84 2/3 innings, and teams are hitting .279 off him.
Also keep an eye on Nick Ramirez and Colin O’Connell. Ramirez has appeared in 25 games and has recorded 10 saves and has a 3.29 ERA in 41 innings. O’Connell rose to the occasion in the Fullerton Regional last week and has a 3.46 ERA in 41 2/3 innings.
Even with some uncertainty still surrounding electric outfielder Gary Brown and his injury status, the Titans still have the better offense.
The Titans will enter the weekend with an impressive .343 batting average. UCLA, meanwhile, enters the series with a .309 average. Interestingly, the Bruins were hitting around .350 at one point earlier this season.
For the Titans, Corey Jones, Carlos Lopez, Nick Ramirez, Christian Colon and Tyler Pill are the headliners.
Jones is hitting .378 with 13 doubles, six triples, nine homers and 54 RBIs. Lopez is hitting .372 with 16 doubles, seven homers and 50 RBIs. Ramirez had a huge Fullerton Regional and is hitting .360 with 28 doubles, 16 homers and 73 RBIs. Colon has been hot the past couple of months and is hitting .358 with 18 doubles, 16 homers and 67 RBIs, and Pill is hitting .353 with seven homers and 41 RBIs.
The X-factor could be the possible return of Brown. Brown is an All-American lock, batting .438 with 20 doubles, eight triples, six homers and 41 RBIs. He also has an on-base percentage of .485 and is 31-of-36 in stolen bases.
Getting Brown back in the fold would be icing on the cake for Fullerton.
For the Bruins, keep an eye on Dean Espy, Beau Amaral, Tyler Rahmatulla and Cody Regis.
Espy is hitting a team-best .366 with eight homers and 48 RBIs. Amaral is hitting .353 with three homers and 25 RBIs. Rahmatulla is hitting .326 with 17 doubles, six homers and 41 RBIs. Regis stepped up in the Los Angeles Regional and is hitting .311 with 16 doubles, six homers and 40 RBIs.
The Bruins are better offensively than their numbers indicate.
There are numerous examples in the past of great or iffy defense being the difference between advancing to the College World Series and sitting at home while other teams fight it out at Rosenblatt Stadium.
Defense definitely could decide the series between the Titans and Bruins.
Go ahead and give the series to the Titans if it is the primary factor.
The Titans enter the series with a .973 fielding percentage and have a stable infield with Colon, Jones, Ramirez and Billy Marcoe leading the way.
Colon, at shortstop, has a .954 fielding percentage. Jones has a .985 fielding percentage at second base. Ramirez has a .985 fielding percentage at first base, and Marcoe has a .993 fielding percentage behind the plate. The weak spot is third baseman Richie Pedroza, who has an unimpressive .892 fielding percentage.
The Bruins enter the series with a .971 fielding percentage and have a solid but not great defensive club.
UCLA first baseman Justin Uribe has a .976 fielding percentage. Second baseman Tyler Rahmatulla has a .957 fielding percentage. Shortstop Niko Gallego has a .932 fielding percentage, and third baseman Cody Regis has a .929 fielding percentage. Catcher Steve Rodriguez is a great defensive catcher and has a .998 fielding percentage.
There’s no question the Bruins have had their fair share of issues beating Cal State Fullerton the past few seasons, especially in the postseason. But that trend eventually will end.
The Titans did an impressive job of fighting back in the Fullerton Regional after dropping the opener to Minnesota. UCLA, though, dominated a much tougher regional that included opponents such as LSU and UC Irvine.
The Bruins played the better brand of baseball the first week of the season. Will that happen again this weekend?
The Bruins know exactly what is at stake in this series. A series loss to the Titans would be devastating for a program finally in position to return to Omaha. A series win against the Titans could be a springboard for the Bruins to become a perennial power.
Knowing what’s at stake and having a group of very confident players, the Bruins for once should have an advantage from a mindset standpoint.
We’ll see if that translates into a series win.