Last Monday in Corvallis, the Michigan baseball team routed Creighton, 17-6, en route to their first super regional appearance since 2007. Approximately three hours later in Los Angeles, top-seeded UCLA rallied back from an early 2-0 deficit against Loyola Marymount, eventually taking the game 6-3. With their late-night win, the Bruins secured a rematch with the Wolverines, who defeated them, 7-5, March 8 at Jackie Robinson Stadium.
In their previous tilt, Michigan jumped on the board immediately against right-hander Zach Pettway, driving in four runs in the first inning. With ample run support, junior left-hander Tommy Henry attacked the zone and cruised through six innings, in which he amassed ten strikeouts while only ceding two runs.
Leading 6-2 as the game entered the seventh inning, Michigan coach Erik Bakich turned to freshman right-hander Willie Weiss, who was tagged for three runs in the seventh. In response, the Wolverines tacked on an insurance run in the eighth courtesy of a wild pitch. Then, Weiss posted consecutive scoreless halves in the bottom of the eighth and ninth to record a nine-out save.
This weekend’s winner will need to win two games to advance to Omaha for the College World Series. The Daily takes a deeper look at each team, starting with this weekend’s host.
The Bruins’ lineup features star power and depth. Leading off for UCLA is center fielder Garrett Mitchell, whose blend of hitting ability, power, and speed makes him one of the nation’s best leadoff hitters. This summer, he will be playing for the USA Baseball collegiate national team and is a projected first round pick in next year’s amateur draft.
Behind him are five consecutive players who were drafted this year, with the headliner being junior first baseman Michael Toglia. Toglia, who stands at 6-foot-5, has light tower power –– 12 home runs on the season –– and was taken by the Colorado Rockies with the 23rd pick in the 2019 MLB Draft.
Batting eighth is breakout catcher Noah Cardenas, who leads the team in average and on-base percentage as a freshman while providing steady defense behind the dish. Even the nine-hole hitter is dangerous, as third baseman Matt McClain –– despite a rocky adjustment to college baseball –– was drafted 26th overall in 2018 by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
As a whole, Bruins’ coach John Savage loves to play small ball. Despite his lineup’s immense talent, UCLA’s stadium, Jackie Robinson stadium, is a pitchers’ ballpark after dark. Once the marine layer settles in, even well-struck balls struggle to escape the yard. Thus, Savage relies heavily, much like Bakich, on the hit-and-run and bunting.
With all three games scheduled for 6:00 p.m. PST, the ballpark will play a role in quelling the Bruin bats, so look for Savage to be aggressive challenging Michigan’s middle infielders, pitchers and sophomore catcher Joe Donovan on defense.
This time around, UCLA enters the matchup better equipped to shut down a dangerous Michigan lineup. When the two squared off in March, the Bruins were slowly welcoming back their ace and eventual PAC-12 Pitcher of the Year, junior right-hander Ryan Garcia. As a result, he did not start the Friday tilt with the Wolverines.
Despite beginning the year three weeks late, Garcia dazzled this season with a sparkling 1.36 earned-run average and 109 strikeouts over merely 86.1 innings of work. He was rewarded for his efforts by the Texas Rangers, who drafted him 49th overall in this year’s MLB draft. Garcia sits in the low-to-mid 90s and paints the corners with his fastball. His four-pitch mix also includes a slider and change-up, while occasionally featuring a developing curveball.
If there is any weakness on this UCLA team, it has been the third starter spot. Earlier in the year, it was Pettway who pitched on Sundays. Following his injury, freshman right-hander Jesse Bergin assumed the role and threw well in PAC-12 play. Last weekend though, he struggled, lasting only one inning against Baylor before Savage turned to the bullpen.
Luckily for the Bruins, Garcia and right-hander Jack Ralston are dominant on the rubber, which will enable them to save their top bullpen arms for a potential Sunday game.
Speaking of the bullpen, UCLA features three elite arms in Hadley, Mora, and Powell. Each one was relied upon heavily as the Bruins clawed their way back from the losers’ bracket to win last week’s regional.
Collectively, the pitching staff will need to focus on preventing an aggressive Michigan squad that also loves to hit-and-run and straight steal. The burden will fall most heavily on catcher Noah Cardenas, who will need to be stellar blocking pitches, as this weekend’s series will likely be decided by a few extra bases here or there.
While UCLA will enter the weekend as a strong favorite, the Wolverines have the potential to pull off an upset.
Since injuries disrupted the standard Michigan lineup, the Wolverines’ could go one of several different ways following senior first baseman Jimmy Kerr in the four spot. In the regional final, senior third baseman Blake Nelson hit fifth. However sophomore shortstop Jack Blomgren could occupy the slot as well this weekend, as he was hitting as high as third before his back injury against Cincinnati Friday.
While senior outfielder Miles Lewis played left field during Big Ten play, junior left fielder Christian Bullock’s big games on Friday and Saturday in place of the injured junior outfielder Jordan Brewer earned him a place in the lineup once Brewer returned. Since UCLA does not have any lefties in its rotation or bullpen, expect Bullock to get the nod over the struggling Lewis.
The final lineup decision Bakich must make is who to start at second base: stalwart senior Ako Thomas or upstart freshman Riley Bertram. Filling in for the injured Blomgren, Bertram went 7-14, including three extra base hits. Thomas, on the other hand, has struggled offensively all year long and went 3-12 last weekend. He sat out Monday night’s game with an undisclosed injury. Nonetheless, the veteran Thomas provides elite defense up the middle, further complicating Bakich’s choice.
While the Wolverines lack the depth of UCLA’s lineup, they match its star power in Brewer and freshman designated hitter Jordan Nwogu. Additionally, Michigan has sophomore outfielder Jesse Franklin, who despite enduring a slump has immense talent. He went 4-6 on Monday, possibly a sign of things to come.
Much like UCLA, Michigan will rely heavily on strategy, rather than power, to score runs. Expect a heavy dose of sacrifice bunts and straight steals, as the Wolverines look to steal a few runs on the base paths this weekend.
Michigan’s typical weekend starters dominated in Corvallis, throwing a combined 23 and two-thirds innings and allowing only six earned runs. Yet their collective performances were overshadowed by one brutal night for the bullpen. On Sunday night the Wolverines’ bullpen gave up eight runs in one and two-thirds innings. They walked six batters and hit two more in the team’s largest collapse of the year.
Luckily for them, as a result of winning their first two games, they had an opportunity to avenge their loss the following night against the same Creighton team. Three of the relievers who combined to give up the eight runs the night before threw a combined five innings and saw only one run cross the plate against them.
Nonetheless, this weekend, Michigan will need its starters to work deep into games. Junior right-hander Karl Kauffman has been fantastic as of late and will get the nod on Friday night. It is possible that Bakich slides up junior left hander Tommy Henry to Saturday, as he has returned to his early season form the past few weeks and carved through the Bruins’ lineup the last time the two teams met.
Out of the bullpen, Willie Weiss has the frontline stuff to compete with UCLA’s hitters. The challenge for him though will be throwing strikes consistently, which could lead to him being on a short leash. Behind Weiss, redshirt-freshman right hander Isaiah Paige, a Los Angeles-native, could play a huge role in pressure situations, as his ability to get ahead in the count has contributed to a bullpen-low (of the seven pitchers to throw at least 20 innings) ERA of 2.96. Lastly, redshirt-junior left hander Ben Keizer could find himself facing Garrett Mitchell in a critical at bat.
Runs will be hard to come by in this weekend’s pitchers’ duels, making defense even more important. For a Michigan team that has shot itself in the foot with errors on several occasions this season, clean play will likely be the difference between a cinderella trip to Omaha and a return flight to Ann Arbor.
Nonetheless, behind their star power and frontline starting pitching, the Wolverines are well positioned to take down the top-seeded Bruins.