Baseball Preview: UCLA

Stanford concludes the Pac-10 portion of their schedule this weekend with a crucial three-game series at UCLA. The Cardinal have won a season-high seven games in a row, but could badly use a couple of wins in Westwood to solidify an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. Meanwhile, the Bruins are attempting to make a late push for the Pac-10 title. Here is a preview of the biggest series of the season.

The UCLA Bruins may be the top turnaround story in college baseball this year.  After a dismal 15-41 overall record in 2005, head coach John Savage has brought his team to the cusp of reaching the NCAA Tournament with an eye-opening '06 campaign.  Picked to again finish near the bottom of the conference, the Bruins currently find themselves sitting in a tie for second place with a solid 10-8 record.  Their overall mark is 28-21 and with an RPI rating hovering around 30, it won't take much in their final two weekends for UCLA to qualify for the postseason.

So the question then becomes: how did they orchestrate this turnaround?  It all starts at the top with Savage - a proven winner, a fantastic pitching mind, and one of the top recruiters in the country.  Savage was the pitching coach at USC for five years from 1996 through 2000 and while with the Trojans, tutored such greats as Mark Prior, Barry Zito, and Rik Currier.  USC claimed the 1998 national championship with Savage as the top assistant coach under Mike Gillespie.  In addition to handling the pitching staff, Savage also served as the recruiting coordinator.  The late 90's saw the Trojans regularly sit in the top five in the country in the annual recruiting rankings - one time checking in at #1.  This obviously was a huge factor in their '98 championship and CWS appearances in '00 and '01.

Savage left USC after the 2000 season to become the head coach at UC Irvine.  A dormant program, Savage helped relaunch Anteater baseball with a winning record in 2002 - their first season back.  By 2004, Savage's third year, he had Irvine in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in their school's history.  And then came his big break.

Gary Adams stepped down at UCLA after 30 years at the end of the 2004 season and Savage was quickly hired to take over in Westwood.  With Adams' players, the '05 season was not a fun one for Savage as the Bruins finished with just a 4-20 record in conference play.  But to no surprise, it hasn't taken long for Savage to revitalize baseball at UCLA and his track record of success should have other Pac-10 coaches worried about the Bruins becoming a legitimate national power in the near future.

Savage's first recruiting class at UCLA was a dandy as it garnered top five national recognition.  Many of those freshman (primarily hitters) are key members of this year's club, but it's been an influx of JC transfers that have probably made more of an impact this season.

While UCLA has a good mix of freshmen and seniors leading the way on the hitting side, Savage has used a pair of JC transfers to round out one of the top starting rotations on the west coast.  Junior left-hander Dave Huff is the ace of the staff and will get the ball on Saturday afternoon (his normal day to pitch).  Huff came to Westwood from Cypress Community College despite a 19th round draft selection last June.  After starring in the Cape Cod League over the summer, Huff has maintained that strong momentum while pitching for the Bruins.

Over 13 starts, Huff has recorded a 6-2 record with a stellar 2.77 ERA (fourth in the league behind Cal's Brandon Morrow, Washington's Tim Lincecum, and Oregon State's Jonah Nickerson).  Huff is a control artist having only walked 21 batters (compared to 90 strikeouts) in 107 1/3 innings pitched.  His fabulous season is earning Huff mention as a possible first round draft pick next month and there's no question the Cardinal should have their hands full on Saturday.

Huff had a complete-game, two-hitter with one run allowed against a high-powered Arizona State offense at Jackie Robinson Stadium last month.  In fact, he's pitched into the ninth inning in all six of his Pac-10 starts this year.  He went the distance last weekend against the Trojans surrendering three runs in an 8-3 UCLA victory.

Junior right-hander Tyson Brummett starts on Sunday for the Bruins.  One of the better #3 starters in the conference, Brummett has chalked up a 4.43 ERA as a full-time member of the rotation.  He may not be quite as consistent as Huff, but Brummett, who came from Arizona Community College this season, could easily silence the Stanford bats in the series finale.  Last Sunday against USC in the rubber contest of the series, Brummett fired a complete-game six-hitter with just one run allowed and five strikeouts.  He was roughed up in his previous Pac-10 start though as the Cal Bears tagged him for six earned runs spanning 5 1/3 innings.

Brummett has already been drafted twice in his career by the San Francisco Giants (35th and 38th rounds).

A familiar face resides at the top of the UCLA rotation in junior right-hander Hector Ambriz.  Ambriz was one of the few bright spots on last year's club when he compiled a 3.94 ERA as the Friday starter.  He's remained in that role this season and has come through with another solid campaign.  Entering this weekend, Ambriz owns a 6-6 record with a 3.77 ERA over 90 2/3 innings pitched.  He hasn't been nearly as dominant as some of the other Friday night starters in this league (or Huff, for that matter), but Ambriz is battle-tested in his current role and has had success in the past versus Stanford (carried a two-hit shutout into the ninth inning at Sunken Diamond last May).

Pitching, primarily starting pitching, is clearly the driving force behind this UCLA team.  The Bruins possess a 3.79 team ERA which is good for third-best in the Pac-10.  Savage has no problems going deep into games with any of his three starters.  Out of the bullpen, there isn't much depth for UCLA.  Only three pitchers have seen considerable time in relief this year with just one (Paul Oseguera: 25 APP, 1.69 ERA, 2 SV) putting up above-average numbers.  If the Cardinal bats can somehow get to Ambriz or Huff early in their games, then it could pay off in a big way later in the series.

Defense is also a main strength of the Bruins as evident by their conference-leading .976 fielding percentage.  Freshman shortstop Brandon Crawford has the ability to make the spectacular play and should become one of the finest infielders in the country before his collegiate career is over.

Offensively, UCLA sits at sixth in the league with a .288 batting average while they're seventh-best in runs scored per game (6.1).  Both figures are just slightly ahead of the Cardinal.  The Bruins don't have a true home run hitting threat in their lineup (like Washington), but Jackie Robinson Stadium is certainly more of a hitters park when it comes to the longball thanks to some favorable dimensions.  That fact has made UCLA's pitching numbers this year even more impressive.

Despite not having any potent home run hitters, the Bruins have still blasted 46 round-trippers on the season - second-most in the Pac-10 (although well behind the Huskies).  A pair of freshmen start off this lineup in Crawford and third baseman Jermaine Curtis.  Both are batting over .300 while Curtis is an excellent #2 hitter as he makes lots of contact and gets on base at a tremendous rate (.463 OBP).  Both set the table for #3 hitter Chris Jensen (.328, 5 HR, 31 RBI), the reigning Pac-10 Player of the Week.  Jensen was also the hitting star of last year's team when he put together a .368 season at the plate.  Meanwhile, Ambriz (.313, 5 HR, 32 RBI) will usually double as a hitter often batting in the clean-up spot. 

Crawford (7 SB) is the only real stolen base threat in the lineup.  Outside of Crawford, the Bruins have swiped just 11 bags this year in their first 49 games.  It's an offense that has been up-and-down this year, but has the ability to get back into game very quickly with the longball - especially at home.  UCLA will normally start four freshmen and four seniors in their lineup for an interesting combination of youth and experience. 

The Bruins are safely in the NCAA Tournament if the season were to end today.  It will probably take just two more wins over their final two weekends (at Oregon State, May 26-28) to secure that at-large bid.  And with the Beavers possibly playing for a Pac-10 title next weekend, you know UCLA would like to get the series win against the Cardinal to solidify their status as a postseason club.  Plus, the Bruins still have a shot at the conference title as they find themselves currently tied with Arizona State (10-8) for second place - just two games behind Oregon State (12-6).

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Brandon Crawford, SS  (Fr., 317, 5 HR, 26 RBI, 7 SB)
2. Jermaine Curtis, 3B  (Fr., .333, 0 HR, 16 RBI, 1 SB)
3. Chris Jensen, RF  (Sr., .328, 5 HR, 31 RBI, 0 SB)
4. Hector Ambriz, DH  (Jr., .313, 5 HR, 32 RBI, 0 SB)
5. Brett McMillan, 1B  (Sr., .267, 6 HR, 23 RBI, 0 SB)
6. Josh Roenicke, CF  (Sr., .271, 1 HR, 23 RBI, 1 SB)
7. Tim Murphy, LF  (Fr., .286, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 0 SB)  or  Blair Dunlap, LF  (Fr., .299, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 2 SB)
8. Sean Smith, 2B  (Sr., .293, 4 HR, 26 RBI, 1 SB)
9. Ryan Babineau, C  (Fr., .257, 4 HR, 21 RBI, 2 SB)

Fri- Hector Ambriz, RHP  (Jr., 6-6, 3.77 ERA, 90.2 IP, 35 BB, 78 SO)
Sat- Dave Huff, LHP  (Jr., 6-2, 2.77 ERA, 107.1 IP, 21 BB, 90 SO)
Sun- Tyson Brummett, RHP  (Jr., 6-6, 4.43 ERA, 83.1 IP, 30 BB, 72 SO)

Notes:
Crawford was one of the top high school prospects in the country last year and oozes potential with his 6'2", 195 lb. frame ... He is strikeout prone though at the top of the lineup with a team-high 40 K's ... Jensen went 8-for-14 with a home run and five RBI against the Trojans last weekend to earn the conference honor ... Ambriz will normally stay in the batting lineup even on the days that he pitches ... McMillan is a four-year starter.



STANFORD NOTES
The Cardinal bring a seven-game winning streak into this crucial three-game series - their final Pac-10 matchup of the year.  All facets of the game have been working for Stanford as they received three outstanding pitching performances from Greg Reynolds, Nolan Gallagher, and Jeremy Bleich last weekend at Washington.  Meanwhile, the Cardinal also pushed across 29 runs versus the Huskies - a season-high in a three-game series this year.  Then on Tuesday, Stanford had no problems recovering from an early 6-0 deficit to visiting Santa Clara scoring 11 of the game's final 12 runs to claim their seventh win in a row.

In addition to their winning streak, the Cardinal have also recorded three straight Pac-10 series victories.  The recent hot streak has vaulted Stanford back into contention for an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament.  A series victory over the Bruins would get the Cardinal to an even 12-12 conference record to finish the Pac-10 slate which should be enough to punch a ticket to the postseason (a possibility of not reaching the NCAA's under this scenario could occur if Stanford then drops all three of their non-conference games next week). 

Just one win versus UCLA and Stanford would have to settle for a sub-.500 conference record (11-13).  The Cardinal would then have to rely on an extremely strong non-conference resume (series wins over Fullerton, Texas, and Fresno State) to impress the committee for a berth in the postseason.  Bottom line, Stanford is playing for their NCAA Tournament lives this weekend.

The Cardinal have yet to officially announce their starting pitchers for the final two games of this critical series.  One thing is for sure, Reynolds gets the ball on Friday night in the opener.  The junior right-hander has carried the team in recent weeks with three consecutive complete games against the likes of Arizona State, California, and Washington (3 ER/27.0 IP, 1.00 ERA).  Stanford has won all three of those games and with Reynolds going the distance, have managed to preserve the bullpen for the final two contests resulting in series wins.

It's a good bet that Bleich will get the call as a starter on either Saturday or Sunday.  The freshman lefty worked seven quality innings in the series finale up in Seattle yielding just two runs in Stanford's 10-2 win.  Bleich owns a solid 3.45 ERA on the year.  Meanwhile, what Coach Marquess decides to do with the third starting assignment is anybody's guess.  Matt Leva (2-1, 4.43 ERA) had an ineffective start last Saturday against Washington getting blasted for four runs in just one inning of work.  Whether Leva remains in the rotation or a change is made is certainly a major point of interest heading into the weekend.  Gallagher (3-3, 2.82 ERA) excelled in long relief of Leva last Saturday allowing only one run in seven innings to pick up the win.  The sophomore right-hander struck out five and may get a look in the rotation this weekend.

Offensively, the Cardinal have found their groove during the winning streak.  Stanford has scored in double figures in their last three games - accomplishing that feat for the first time this season.  It's been the big inning that has been mainly responsible for the recent surge as the Cardinal have plated seven, eight, and nine runs in innings over the last three games.

Sophomore Michael Taylor has caught fire as he brings a nine-game hitting streak into the weekend.  Taylor went 5-for-5 in Tuesday's win over Santa Clara to help the comeback effort.  Senior Chris Minaker has continued his standout play hitting home runs during two of those recent big innings. 

With right-handers starting on the mound for UCLA on Friday and Sunday, look for a pair of red-hot freshman left-handed bats to see a lot of playing time this weekend.  First baseman Jason Castro has homered in each of the last two games while Grant Escue has come out of nowhere at the DH position.  Escue started all three games at Washington (his first three starts of the year) and racked up five hits from the #2 spot in the batting order.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Ryan Seawell, CF  (Jr., .305, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 3 SB)
2. Grant Escue, DH  (Fr., 7-for-15, 0 HR, 5 RBI)
3. Chris Minaker, SS  (Sr., .348, 10 HR, 57 RBI, 5 SB)
4. Michael Taylor, RF  (So., .326, 2 HR, 31 RBI, 2 SB)
5. Randy Molina, 3B  (So., .327, 0 HR, 8 RBI, 0 SB)
6. Chris Lewis, 2B  (Sr., .282, 5 HR, 35 RBI, 1 SB)
7. Jason Castro, 1B  (Fr., .254, 3 HR, 15 RBI, 5 SB)
8. John Hester, C  (Sr., .264, 1 HR, 16 RBI, 3 SB)
9. Jim Rapoport, LF  (Jr., .238, 2 HR, 23 RBI, 3 SB)

Fri- Greg Reynolds, RHP  (Jr., 6-3, 3.17 ERA, 96.2 IP, 24 BB, 80 SO)
Sat- TBA
Sun- TBA

Notes:
Escue had just one at-bat all season before last Tuesday, May 9th when he connected for a pinch-hit, two-RBI double in the 12th inning at Santa Clara ... Minaker has played every inning of the season at shortstop ... Taylor is batting .439 during his current nine-game hitting streak ... Hester returned to action last Tuesday (1-for-5, 2B, 2 RBI) after missing the previous eight games with an infection in his knee ... Look for Brian Juhl (.244, 1 HR, 3 RBI) and Brent Milleville (.204, 2 HR, 12 RBI) to start at DH and 1B respectively on Saturday against the lefty Huff.



ODDS AND ENDS
* Stanford has seen their season batting average jump to .275 thanks to their recent hot streak.  They're eighth in the Pac-10 in both hitting and runs per game (5.4).  Their 4.19 team ERA is now fourth-best in the conference.

* Three weeks ago, Huff threw ten innings (two runs allowed) in a start at California.

* Huff is second in the conference in innings pitched (behind Lincecum) and third in strikeouts (behind Lincecum and Morrow).

* The Bruins have notched conference series wins over USC (home), Arizona State (home), Arizona (road), and Washington State (home).  They've suffered series losses at California and at Washington.  UCLA has not been involved in a conference sweep this year.

* The Bruins dropped back-to-back home series' to Fresno State and Miami to open the regular season.  They have not lost a series at Jackie Robinson Stadium since.

* UCLA's offense also is playing at a high level having scored 28 runs in their last three games (all wins).

* Stanford's last seven-game winning streak came in April, 2004 when the Cardinal were ranked in the top five nationally.



PAC-10 STANDINGS

                      Conf.   GB   Overall
Oregon State          12-6    -    35-13
Arizona State         10-8   2.0   32-17
UCLA                  10-8   2.0   28-21
USC                   11-10  2.5   25-26
Washington State       9-9   3.0   34-18
Stanford              10-11  3.5   28-21
Washington             9-12  4.5   33-23
California             9-12  4.5   25-25
Arizona                7-11  5.0   22-27

This Weekend
* Stanford at UCLA
* Arizona State at Arizona
* Oregon State at Washington State
USC at Wichita State
Washington at Pacific

* - Pac-10 series



RPI UPDATE
(rankings from Boydsworld through Tuesday, May 16th)
24. Arizona State
27. UCLA
35. Oregon State
36. Stanford
45. USC
68. Washington
81. California
89. Arizona
116. Washington State

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