UCLA takes on Cal State Fullerton in NCAA super regionals

UCLA (42-17) at Cal State Fullerton (51-8)
The Freeway super regional should be heaven for baseball purists. UCLA and Cal State Fullerton are both amongst the best pitching and defensive teams in the nation. When they collide at Goodwin Field this weekend, runs are expected to be at a premium.

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Times: Friday 4 p.m., Saturday 7 p.m., Sunday 7 p.m. (if necessary)
TV: ESPN2

Key to UCLA Victory:
Score first.

Offensively, the Titans have more firepower than the Bruins, who rely primarily on walks and small ball to manufacture production. That gives them an immediate visible advantage over the Baby Blue, who are hitting only .252 on the season. But John Savage's club has plenty in its arsenal to be competitive in a best-of-three postseason series. All the big guns are in his pitching staff, and UCLA features the nation's most dominant bullpen, a unit that is anchored by Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year David Berg (20 saves, 0.81 ERA).

Give James Kaprielian (seventh inning), Zack Weiss (eighth inning), and Berg (ninth inning) the ball with the lead, and a UCLA win is very likely. The trick is getting there. On the starting mound, the Bruins are more than capable: Adam Plutko (8-3, 2.51 ERA), Nick Vander Tuig (11-4, 2.51 ERA) and lefty Grant Watson (8-3, 3.22 ERA) all have delivered excellent seasons.

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It'll all likely come down to the ability of the UCLA offense to manufacture runs against an equally superb Fullerton pitching staff. A pair of freshmen, Justin Garza (12-0, 1.92 ERA) and Thomas Eshelman (12-2, 1.59 ERA), kick off the Titans' rotation, but their youth was certainly not a negative issue in the regional that eliminated Pac-12 contender Arizona State last weekend. The Titans will not beat themselves: Eshelman, for example, has walked only two batters all season (good for an unreal 39:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio). Both teams play superb defense, so this super regional is all about establishing early offensive momentum.

Hinge Player:
Since the first game of a best-of-three super regional is the pivotal one, much rests on UCLA right-hander Adam Plutko's shoulders. The junior must set the tone for the Bruins and buy his offense the breathing room to earn a lead for the bullpen. Of course, that's all much easier said than done: Fullerton is a confident ball club at the plate these days. Its .406 team slugging percentage is excellent. Centerfielder Michael Lorenzen (.335, 7 HR, 53 RBI) is an imposing prospect in the batter's box. If Plutko can take the sting out of the Titans' bats, the Bruins have a good chance of carrying over positive offensive momentum from the regional round and scratching out enough production to set up their killer bullpen.

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David Lombardi has covered Pac-12 baseball since 2007. He’s a play-by-play voice and on-air reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.

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