Cristoph Bono celebrates scoring the go-ahead run vs. LSU in the CWS, Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
The 2013 College World Series started off about as well as it could have for UCLA. Not only did the Bruins take down No. 4 LSU in their opening round game, but No. 1 North Carolina was also sent to the losers bracket by rival NC State, leaving a wide open field in front of them.
That means that UCLA—a team with very strong pitching and experience in Omaha— is just two wins away from returning to the CWS Championship Series. The Bruins advanced to the finals in 2010, but lost to South Carolina in two games to end up runner up. If UCLA can get past the Wolfpack tonight, this could be the year that the Bruins finally finish and claim the program’s first ever CWS title.
But of course, NC State won’t be looking to slip into the losers bracket without a fight. The Wolfpack, led by stud hurler Carlos Rodon, just took down their biggest rival and the top-seeded team in the country to get where they are. If the NCSU offense can continue to produce like it has of late, head coach Elliott Avent‘s team won’t be an easy out for any opponent.
Carlos Rodon, Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
However, the good news for UCLA is that Rodon has already gone. With the NC State ace resting harmlessly in the dugout, the Bruins will get a chance against someone else from the Wolfpack rotation. Just who that’ll be is somewhat unclear, as Avent has mixed up his starters throughout the season, but it’s a relief it won’t be Rodon.
The most likely candidates are Ethan Ogburn or Brad Stone, the two Pack pitchers with the most starts behind Rodon. Ogburn has the numbers of a No. 2 starter with an ERA of 2.70, but his 5-3 record in 12 starts is unremarkable. Stone has a much larger ERA at 5.28, though his 59 strikeouts in 58 innings shows power that could be trouble.
No matter which NC State player takes the mound, he won’t be at Rodon’s level. So unless the offense can really dig in and establish itself against UCLA’s Nick Vander Tuig, the Wolfpack might be in danger without their best weapon in action. In that sense, you could say the Tar Heels took a bullet—or more like a heat-seeking missile—for the Bruins.
Getting to Ogburn, Stone or whoever takes the bump early will be key for UCLA, especially if the current trend of living on the edge offensively continues. The Bruins have won their last two games—both against favored national seeds—without registering a single earned run. UCLA batted a combined .186 (11-59) over the course of those games, a gruesome statistic that includes eight Ks against LSU.
But this kind of baseball is nothing new for John Savage and his team. The Bruins thrive when the pace is slowed and pitching takes over, allowing them to put pressure on the opposition and force mistakes. Because UCLA rarely commits errors in the field, or misses an important pitch, this grind-it-out style works. It’s not flashy, and it won’t fill up any stat sheets, but it gives the Bruins a chance to win.
Eric Filia has had success at the plate this postseason, Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
Obviously, we’d all love UCLA to start swinging some strong bats. The fact that no Bruin is batting over .300 tells you how stagnant the offense can become. But if they can keep finding a way on base, sacrificing and manufacturing runs, it should be enough for the pitching staff to bring it home.
Should UCLA come out on top against NC State, the Bruins would improve to 2-0 in the CWS and put themselves one win away from advancing. They would get a long rest waiting to play the team that survives the elimination gauntlet, and would only need to win 1-of-2 to clinch.
On the other hand, a loss to the Pack would put UCLA on the brink of destruction, setting up a meeting with the winner of LSU vs. UNC in an elimination game. From there, the Bruins would have to win three straight games to survive. It goes without saying where they’d rather be, but it’s up to them to get there.
First pitch is scheduled for 5 PM PST on Tuesday at TD Ameritrade Park, following the elimination game between the Tigers and Heels at noon. By the end of the day, we’ll know if a CWS crown is a legitimate possibility for UCLA, or if the Bruins are destined to depart Omaha dreaming.
Make sure to follow GJB on Twitter (@GoJoeBruinUCLA) for UCLA baseball and CWS updates, during the game and throughout the week! Let’s go Bruins!