Thursday, May 14, 2009

UCLA Series Preview

By FullertonBaseballFan

Cal State Fullerton’s season was teetering on the brink a few weeks ago with nothing assured for where things were headed for the post-season. Fullerton swept both UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara and won the first two games of the Cal Poly series and 13 of 14 games overall before dropping the final game in San Luis Obispo. The Titans are playing with a great deal of confidence and are now on course for a national top eight seed that would guarantee hosting a regional and a super regional if they won their regional. Fullerton heads into this weekend with lots of momentum and will be playing a non-conference series against an opponent they have played more games against than any other team over the last two seasons, the UCLA Bruins. The Titans went 9-2 against UCLA the last two years and eliminated the Bruins in a super regional two years ago and a regional last season.

UCLA once again came into this season with high expectations despite losing 3/4 of their infield, their catcher and their Friday SP. The Bruins were picked #12 by Baseball America, who infamously picked UCLA #1 going into last season, and picked by the coaches in the Pac 10 conference to finish second. But much as they did in 2008, UCLA once again has failed to live up to those predictions and is 25-24 and 14-10 in conf in what has been a very down year for the Pac-10 with the conference unlikely to have more than three teams playing in regionals.

The Bruins got off to a terrible 2-10 start and were still only 13-19 in the middle of April before the light bulb started to go on. UCLA went on a 10-3 run, which included a sweep of Washington and a series win over Oregon State, to get back over .500 and start having thoughts of playing in a regional. The Bruins reverted back to their inconsistent ways last weekend when they lost a series at home to Cal and the play that pretty much decided the series was a fly ball that was dropped in LF in the 9th inning that the Bears converted into two runs and a win. UCLA’s RPI is in the mid 70’s and their hopes for qualifying for a regional are slim.


The offense was one of the main reasons UCLA failed to live up to expectations last season, with several players having major regression from previous performance levels, and head coach John Savage decided it was time to shake things up when he hired long time Fullerton assistant coach Rick Vanderhook. The offense at UCLA is still a work in progress with the Bruins ranking in the middle of the pack in most offensive categories in the Pac 10 but when looked at in the big picture that isn’t too impressive.

UCLA is hitting .284 (4th in the conf but only 225th nationally), has scored 293 R’s (4th in the conf but only 213th nationally), has a .438 SLG % (4th in the conf but only 176th nationally) and has hit 47 HR’s (4th in the conf) in a ballpark with short 370 ft power alleys that are similar to ballparks you will find in the south. A big part of UCLA’s problem is making contact because they are next to last in the conf in K’s and are averaging about eight per game. One area that the Bruins have excelled in is being patient at the plate, taking pitches and HBP’s. UCLA is 3rd in the conf with 216 BB’s and 2nd in the conf with 65 HBP’s (including 17 by one player) and is 4th in the conf with a .386 OBP. The Bruins will try play some little ball and try to run some and bunt some, ranking 5th in the conf with 34 SAC’s and 51 SB’s.

All three players that UCLA lost in their infield were very good defensive players so it is not surprising that the Bruins have had some issues defensively. UCLA has committed 58 errors for a .967 fielding % and has committed 32 errors around the infield along with another 8 by their pitchers. The Bruins have only turned 27 DP’s, which is last in the Pac 10. UCLA has a solid CF but their corner OF defense has also been an issue. Despite breaking in new catchers, the Bruins have been the best team in the Pac 10 at stopping the running game (27-53 SB’s) but they have struggled with blocking pitches and have allowed 61 WP’s/PB’s, ranking 8th in the conf.


C – UCLA has been breaking in new players at C after losing three year starter Ryan Babineau. FR Steve Rodriguez (LH – .179-1-7-1) and SR Gino Aielli (RH – .350-2-11-5) have been splitting time with Rodriguez catching most of the time vs. RHP’s and usually hitting 9th. Rodriguez is a little better defensively but Aielli is much better offensively. Rodriguez leads the team with 8 SAC’s. Aielli has the highest AVG on the team and UCLA also has him play some 3B and DH to get his bat in the lineup and he usually hits 6th or 7th. He is primarily a singles hitter with only one extra base hit in 54 AB’s in conf games. Baserunners are 14-21 on SB’s against Rodriguez and 12-19 on SB’s against Aielli.

1B – SR Cody Decker (RH – .321-17-41-2) is one of the leading HR hitters on the west coast and in the top 25 nationally in HR’s. Decker leads the Pac 10 in HR’s, is 5th in R’s and SLG%, 6th total bases and 9th in RBI’s. He has bounced back to have an outstanding season as the cleanup hitter after a subpar 2008 (.218-7-30-2) when he hit much worse than he did in 2007 (.307-14-57-1). Decker has a big swing and Decker strikes out about 1/3 of the time and is 6th in the Pac 10 with 48 K’s. He is patient at the plate and walks quite a bit (4th in the Pac 10 in BB’s) and has been pitched around some due to his ability to change a game with one swing of the bat. Decker is a big guy without much range and was the DH most of the first half of the season but has been adequate defensively. He has struggled in his career against Fullerton and is 3-19 with 1 HR.

2B – SR Eddie Murray (RH – .272-2-29-5) was a reserve for three seasons before getting an opportunity to play this year due to the graduation of Alden Carrithers. Murray has been hitting at the top of the lineup most of the season and has been the leadoff hitter for the past month. He leads the conf in HBP’s (and is in the top 20 nationally), is 6th in OBP and 7th in walks. Murray has struggled with weekend pitching and is only hitting .217 in conf games and strikes out about 20% of the time (32 K’s), which is a high rate for a singles hitter. He is among the team leaders with 6 SAC’s. He played mostly 3B prior to this season and has struggled with the position change and has made 12 errors.

SS – Soph Niko Gallego (RH – .267-0-22-5) has started every game at SS after backing up Brandon Crawford and Carrithers last season. He usually hits 8th or 9th and does not have much pop in his bat with a .323 SLG % and strikes out about 20% of the time (28 K’s), which is too much for a singles hitter. He is a scrappy player who will bunt (5 SAC’s) and take a HBP (5th in the conf with 11) and has hit .309 in conf games. Gallego is average defensively and has limited range (last in assists in the conf at SS) and has made 8 errors and would probably be better at 2B, where he was projected to play coming into the season.

3B – This has been a platoon situation with several players manning the hot corner after Jermaine Curtis was drafted after last season. The players most likely to play 3B this weekend are Casey Haerther, Aielli and FR Tyler Rahmatulla (.224 in 67 AB’s). Rahmatulla played SS in HS and provides better defense at 3B than Aielli but is struggling offensively with the transition to D1 and has only one extra base hit. FR Chris Amezquita (.263 in 57 AB’s) has more power than Rahmatulla and has also played at 3B but has not started there the last three weeks.

DH – JR Casey Haerther (RH – .320-8-35-4) usually hits 3rd and is the best hitter on the team when he is healthy, which he hasn’t been after breaking a toe against Stanford a month ago and missing seven games except for a couple of pinch-hit appearances. Haerther was playing either 3B or 1B prior to the injury but was limited to being the DH the last three weeks before starting at 3B on Tues against Long Beach. He has been affected by the injury because he is only hitting .238 in conf games. Haerther is a patient hitter who consistently squares up hard line drives to all fields. He was the best all-around hitter on the team last year (2008 – .324-12-52-10) and is 8-27 in his career against Fullerton, including 2 HR’s in the regional last season. If Haerther is able to play 3B then Aielli or Chris Giovinazzo (RH – .299-1-12-1) would be the DH.


LF – JR Gabe Cohen (RH – .276-5-28-5) has started almost every game in LF but dropped a fly ball in the 9th inning last Friday that ended up being the difference in the game. Cohen has played better this year than he did last season (2008 – .204-9-28-9) when his game fell off the map after a FR All-American season in 2007 (.345-10-36-4). He usually bats 6th or 7th and has plus power when he makes contact but that has been a big problem because he strikes out about 30% of the time (37 K’s). Cohen has struggled in his career against Fullerton and is 3-20 against the Titans. He wasn’t in the lineup in the last two games against Cal or against Long Beach and the other options in the OF would be Giovinazzo, Brett Krill (RH – .250 in 20 AB’s) or Marc Navarro (LH – .143 in 28 AB’s).

CF – JR Blair Dunlap (RH – .290-6-32-13) has gone from a part-time player last season (2008 – .250-2-16-3) who struggled with injuries to being one of the better players on the team. He is UCLA’s fastest runner (9th in the conf in SB’s) and was batting leadoff earlier in the year. Dunlap has started to hit for power with 5 HR’s and 22 RBI’s in conf games and has been moved into the middle of the lineup to take advantage of his run production. With the increase in power has also come lots of K’s because Dunlap is striking out over 20% of the time (40 K’s). He is a good defensive OF and covers ground well. Dunlap hit very well against Fullerton last year and went 9-23 with one HR, 5 RBI’s and three multi-hit games.

RF – JR Justin Uribe (LH – .323-3-21-3) is the only real LH threat in the lineup and has the 2nd highest AVG on the team. After breaking into the lineup as a FR as an OF/P, big things were expected for Uribe last season but he only had 53 AB’s (.283 BA) and missed most of the season after having surgery when he injured his elbow while pitching. He doesn’t hit for much power but does a good job of spraying the ball around the field. Uribe is a decent OF and had a plus arm before the injury. He wore out Fullerton as a FR with four games with two hits each and is 9-16 in his career against the Titans.


UCLA anticipated having a good pitching staff after bringing back most of their pitching staff from last season except for their Friday SP and bringing in two very high profile recruits. The pitching staff struggled early as the coaching staff was figuring out which pitchers would work best in which roles and some of the pitchers were shuffled from the rotation to the bullpen and vice versa. The Bruins have been pitching much better lately and that is a big reason why UCLA has played better after their very poor start. UCLA is #23 in the country with a 4.21 team ERA, #19 in hits allowed per game and #8 in strikeouts. The Bruins have allowed five runs or less in 19 of the last 22 games and the leaders on the pitching staff are their FR SP’s who are the starters on Fri and Sat. UCLA thought they would have a deeper bullpen with so many experienced pitchers but that hasn’t been the case.


Fri SP – FR Gerrit Cole (RHP – 4-5, 3.34 ERA, 12 starts, 73 IP, 48 H, 30 BB, 93 K, .189 BA, 7 HR) was drafted in the 1st round last June and surprised everybody by ending up on campus and turning down a signing bonus worth several million dollars. Cole is a pure power pitcher and uses a high 90’s fastball, curveball and changeup to get hitters out. He is averaging 11.5 K’s per 9 IP (9th in the country) and averaging 5.9 H allowed per 9 IP (4th in the country). The only things that have gotten Cole into trouble are the occasional HR and some bouts with wildness because he leads the team in BB’s and WP’s. Cole had a 1 hitter going into the 9th inning last Friday but he allowed 5 BB’s in the game and along with a dropped fly ball, that was enough to saddle him with a 3-2 loss despite 11 K’s. He lost the previous start 3-2 at Oregon when the defense let him down again and contributed to two unearned runs. In his prior start at Oregon State, Cole allowed 5 R in 5 IP due to 6 BB’s in one of his shorter outings of the season and he was removed after 121 pitches, his highest pitch count prior to last Friday against Cal when he threw 122 pitches in 8 1/3 IP. Baserunners are 4-7 in SB attempts against Cole.

Sat SP – FR Trevor Bauer (RHP – 8-3, 2.68 ERA, 18 apps, 8 starts, 87 IP, 71 H, 20 BB, 79 K, .225 BA, 4 HR) was supposed to be a HS SR but decided he wanted to get his college career started a year early and he has shown that he was more than ready to pitch at the college level. Bauer has a four pitch mix with a low 90’s fastball and very good control but doesn’t mind pitching inside to keep hitters off the plate and has 8 HBP’s. He started the season working out of the bullpen and as a midweek SP but was so effective that he pitched his way into a weekend SP role. Bauer has been dominant in his last four starts with a 2.06 ERA and 22 H allowed in 35 IP with three CG wins and he left the other start after 8 IP with a lead only to see the bullpen blow the game. The coaching staff has been allowing him to build up fairly high pitch counts because Bauer has thrown 120+ pitches in each of his last three starts. He is 3rd in the conf in IP and 6th in the conf in ERA and K’s. Baserunners are 4-7 in SB attempts against Bauer.

Sun SP – JR Charles Brewer (RHP – 3-5, 3.96 ERA, 12 starts, 64 IP, 71 H, 17 BB, 61 K, .291 BA, 6 HR) has a low 90’s fastball with a solid curveball and changeup. He was off his game against Cal last week and was knocked out of the game early, allowing 4 R in 3 2/3 IP. In his previous five starts Brewer had a 2.67 ERA with 25 H allowed in 30 IP. Brewer doesn’t usually pitch deep into games and is often taken out after about 6 IP. He has solid control but he will pitch inside and leads the team with 10 HBP’s. Brewer has been able to do a better job of keeping runs off the board than last year (2008 – 9-4, 5.10 ERA, 19 apps, 13 starts, 97 IP, 108 H, 31 BB, 69 K, .281 BA, 12 HR) because he has done avoided giving up HR’s and big innings. He is outstanding at controlling the running game and has allowed only 1-7 SB’s. Fullerton saw quite a bit of Brewer last year when allowed 9 R in 5 2/3 IP in two midweek games before beating Fullerton in a regional game when he allowed 3 R in 5 IP.


The closer for UCLA is JR Gavin Brooks (LHP – 0-3, 4.70 ERA, 8 saves, 23 apps, 31 IP, 27 H, 19 BB, 30 K, .243 BA, 1 HR), who has had an interesting season and career. Brooks was a SP in his first two seasons (2008 – 6-3, 5.07 ERA, 14 starts, 71 IP, 68 H, 53 BB, 62 K, .252 BA, 9 HR) before control problems caused by some issues with his mechanics resulted in Brooks moving to the bullpen this season. He allowed 10 R (7 ER) in his first two apps but has been solid most of the time since then with a 2.83 ERA in his last 21 apps. Brooks has a fastball that sits in the upper 80’s but tends to have issues with his command of his secondary pitches (curve, changeup). He leads the Pac 10 in saves, including six in conf games, but has blown two saves and has allowed 8 BB’s in 12 2/3 IP in conf games. Brooks is another pitcher that Fullerton has seen plenty of. He was dominant with 12 K’s in a CG 2-1 loss in the 2007 super regional but allowed 8 R on 6 H and 6 BB in 6 IP in his two other apps against the Titans.

Of the four other relievers that UCLA would be likely to use, three of them are also LHP’s – Soph Matt Grace (3-2, 4.06 ERA, 20 apps, 3 starts, 38 IP, 40 H, 10 BB, 30 K, .268 BA, 3 HR), Soph Rob Rasmussen (3-2, 6.75 ERA, 1 save, 14 apps, 6 starts, 40 IP, 49 H, 21 BB, 45 K, .304 BA, 6 HR) and SR Brendan Lafferty (0-2, 6.00 ERA, 18 apps, 27 IP, 37 H, 17 BB, 29 K, .333 BA, 1 HR). Grace was used early as a midweek SP and was ineffective in that role but has thrived in the bullpen and in eight apps in conf games has a 1.15 ERA in 16 IP, allowing only 7 H and 3 BB with 15 K’s. He allowed 6 R on 7 H and 4 BB in 4 2/3 IP in three apps against Fullerton last season (2008 – 0-0, 3.55 ERA, 17 apps, 33 IP, 31 H, 20 BB, 18 K, .248 BA, 7 HR). Rasmussen was in the weekend rotation earlier in the season but was ineffective in back to back starts against USC and Arizona and has been pitching out of the bullpen since then. He allowed 6 R on 10 H in 5 IP in 2 apps against Fullerton last season (2008 – 0-2, 5.60 ERA in 18 IP). Lafferty was the most effective reliever for UCLA last season (2008 – 4-3, 3.74 ERA, 3 saves, 33 apps, 67 IP, 61 H, 30 BB, 56 K, .254 BA, 6 HR) but has struggled this season and has been passed up by others in the bullpen. Lafferty has allowed 4 R on 6 H and 5 BB in 6 IP in 4 apps in his career against Fullerton.

The only RHP that would be likely to pitch this weekend would be SR Jason Novak (1-1, 7.91 ERA, 16 apps, 19 IP, 24 H, 12 BB, 20 K, .300 BA, 1 HR). Novak was also much more effective last season (2008 – 1-1, 3.60 ERA, 4 saves, 20 apps, 35 IP, 31 H, 17 BB, 28 K, .238 BA, 3 HR) but has pitched decently in limited innings in conf games (5 apps, 6 IP, 2 R). Novak has allowed 6 R on 8 H and 4 BB in 9 2/3 IP in 4 apps in his career against Fullerton, although he did allow only 1 unearned run in 4 IP in an appearance in last year’s regional game that UCLA won. The midweek SP for UCLA is Garrett Claypool (RHP – 2-1, 3.10 ERA, 12 apps, 6 starts, 29 IP, 23 H, 10 BB, 37 K, .217 BA, 5 HR), who usually throws 5-6 innings during the week and doesn’t usually pitch during weekend games. Claypool has allowed 3 R’s on 6 H and 3 BB in 4 1/3 IP in two apps his career against Fullerton.


If UCLA has any chance of making it into a regional they are going to have to win this series and their series next weekend at ASU. The Bruins definitely have a pitching staff that is more than capable of pulling off the upset but their offense has been very inconsistent against weekend pitching, scoring four runs or less in 9 of 18 games over the last six weekend series and hitting only .276 in conf games. Also, UCLA usually has played poorly against Fullerton and teams coached by John Savage are 4-21 against the Titans (2-7 at UC Irvine, 2-14 at UCLA) so there is definitely some sort of mental block for the Bruins when they play Fullerton.

The Titans are playing about as well as they were earlier in the season when they went on an 18-2 run against some tough competition and are a more well rounded team than UCLA. There aren’t likely to be many runs scored in this series because of the pitching staffs of both teams and the Bruins could win this series with the way that Cole and Bauer are pitching but Fullerton is on too much of a roll to pick against the Titans this weekend and Fullerton should win two of three games in the series.

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