Off The Bat: More Than Bragging Rights For Bruins

LOS ANGELES—The Dodger Stadium Classic concluded Sunday night with a 14-inning struggle between crosstown rivals Southern California and No. 14 UCLA. It was the longest game in series history, and UCLA finally prevailed, 5-3, to complete a 3-0 weekend in the event.

With 9,000 fans and pep bands from both schools in the stands, it was a fitting end to the tournament, which also included No. 24 Mississippi State and Oklahoma.

“I thought it was a great game for college baseball,” USC coach Dan Hubbs said. “Great setting, obviously, with Dodger Stadium. Fourteen innings, I think people got their money’s worth.”

UCLA coach John Savage, who won his 400th game at the school Sunday, said the event was a showcase of baseball in Southern California. Before the game, he dedicated the day to Scott Muckey, the longtime coach at nearby Crespi High, who died Saturday.

“I thought it was a great day for Southern California baseball in a lot of ways,” Savage said. “You have two quality programs competing against each other in an iconic stadium, legendary ballpark. It was one for the ages really, in terms of how well that game was played.”

Both teams had plenty of opportunities to win the game. UCLA stranded 15 runners and USC left 13 on base. In the end, it was the Bruins that finally found a way to bring home the winning run. With two outs and the bases loaded in the 14th, Christoph Bono hit a slow ground ball to short that went under the glove of Reggie Southall, allowing two runs to score.

The Bruins were the visiting team, which meant righthander Scott Burke had to go back to the mound to get three more outs to end the game. The Trojans started the bottom of the inning with back-to-back singles and a sacrifice bunt to move the tying run into scoring position with one out, but he would get no further. Burke retired Jeremy Martinez and Timmy Robinson, the Trojans’ third and fourth hitters, to end the game.

“The guys battled,” Savage said. “That was a tremendous game. I think the most impressive thing tonight was we were the visiting team. Those are tough games to win when you’re the visiting team.”

It was just one game in early March, but Sunday’s victory may be worth more than just bragging rights for the Bruins. They started the season slower than they would have liked, and entered the weekend 3-5. But after three wins against solid competition, they may have turned a corner in the young season.

“We needed confidence, we needed to play well, we needed to play Bruin baseball, we needed to pitch, we needed to play defense, we needed to do things that give you a chance to win,” Savage said. “This weekend we gave ourselves a chance to win. That’s the position you really want to put your team in.

“It’s something to build off, but we’re not too excited. We know it’s a long season and a lot of games ahead of us.”

As for USC, it too stumbled out of the gate, losing two games to North Dakota on opening weekend. Coming out of this weekend with two wins would have provided USC (6-5) with some momentum going into tough series against Texas Christian and California the next two weekends.

Hubbs said he didn’t think the Trojans played particularly well this weekend, but were still able to compete with three good teams.

“We just have to play better, and if we do that then I think we’ll be in a position that we want to be,” he said. “And if we play better at the end of the year and we get in (the NCAA Tournament) and we do what we’re supposed to do, then all these things we’re grinding over these first few weeks, they’ll pay off. Because we’ll have been in every dogfight you can possibly imagine, every situation you can possibly imagine, every single one of these guys will have been in.”

Ramblin’ Wreck Rolling Again

After starting his career without allowing an earned run in 15 innings, Georgia Tech freshman Jonathan Hughes finally allowed a blemish in the fourth inning Sunday against Western Carolina. But the righthander (6 IP 5 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 1 K) turned in another quality start, his third straight, and the Yellow Jackets defeated the Catamounts, 4-3.

The win improved Georgia Tech to 11-0, its best start to the season since 2006. Hughes, an unsigned second-round pick of the Orioles last June, is a big part of the Yellow Jackets’ hot start to the season. He is 3-0, 0.50 and has locked down the Sunday starter’s role.

“He’s got a good arm,” coach Danny Hall said. “He’s got a good breaking ball, he competes very well. When he’s been in trouble, he’s pitched out of trouble. He’s talented, but I think he’s competitive also. I think it’s a good combination to have. He’s done a really good job.”

Hughes was a part of Georgia Tech’s fourth-ranked recruiting class this fall, which was heavy on pitching. The Yellow Jackets missed the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 2007, and their pitching was a large part of the reason for their subpar season. Their team ERA of 4.83 ranked 12th in the Atlantic Coast Conference, ahead of only Wake Forest and Boston College.

This season, while it is still very early, they have cut more than three runs off their ERA, dropping it to 1.78. The difference is in part due to Hughes and six other freshman pitchers who have all started their college careers pitching well. Righthanders Micah Carpenter, Bobby Gauvreau and Jake Lee have all made at least four relief appearances without allowing an earned run, and righthander Keyton Gibson made his first career start Saturday.

The success of Georgia Tech’s young arms has not surprised Hall. He said they pitched well as a group both during fall ball and in intersquad games this winter, performances that have carried over into the spring.

“When we started playing games for real all, of them have come out of the gate and done a really good job,” Hall said. “It’s really helped us quite honestly. It’s given us a lot of depth.”

The Yellow Jackets’ pitching staff has also been helped by the defense, which has turned 21 double plays in 11 games. Shortstop Connor Justus and second baseman Wade Bailey have been strong up the middle, helping the pitchers work out of trouble. Justus has also been a key at the plate, where he is hitting .465/.540/.698.

The schedule gets tougher for Georgia Tech this week, with a trip to Auburn on Tuesday and a series at No. 15 Florida State to open ACC play this weekend. Hall knows his team will need to continue to improve as the season continues, but for now the Yellow Jackets are playing well and with confidence.

Eight for Omaha

Each week, I’ll update my projected College World Series field based on the latest week’s games.

California, Florida, Louisville, Miami, Oregon State, Texas A&M, Texas Christian, Vanderbilt.

After considering replacing Virginia with TCU into my Omaha field last week, I’m now ready to make the move. I still think the Cavaliers have the talent and will be playing well by the time the tournament begins, but the Horned Frogs continue to impress. Though TCU lost Friday to Gonzaga, it came back and won the series with a pair of commanding victories.


Five players or programs who stood out this weekend.

California: Down 7-0 with two out in the eighth inning Sunday at Texas, Cal came all the way back to win, 10-7, in 11 innings. The Bears are the first team ever to sweep a four-game series against the Longhorns.

Will Craig, 3b/rhp, Wake Forest: The reigning ACC player of the year had two hits in all three of the Demon Deacons games this weekend, including two homers in a 17-3 victory Sunday against Richmond. He also threw 1 1/3 perfect innings Friday to earn his second save of the season.

Jack Kruger, dh, Mississippi State: The California native enjoyed his homecoming at the Dodger Stadium Classic, as he went 5-for-13 and hit a three-run home run during the weekend. Kruger is now hitting .511/.600/.911 with three home runs in 12 games this season.

Matt Vierling, dh/rhp, Notre Dame: The freshman hit a walk-off home run and picked up his first career victory Sunday, as Notre Dame defeated Niagara, 5-4, in 10 innings at the USA Baseball Irish Classic in Cary, N.C. Vierling is the Irish’s leading hitter at .333/.435/.513 and is 1-0, 4.50 in two relief appearances.

Josh Winder, rhp, Virginia Military Institute: Facing Binghamton on Sunday, Winder threw a 10-inning complete game in the Keydets 2-1 victory. Winder (10 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 10 K) worked efficiently, throwing 105 pitches, in VMI’s longest start of the aluminum bat era. The freshman improved to 2-1, 3.80 with 21 strikeouts and two walks in 21 1/3 innings this season.

Looking Ahead

Three weekend series we’re most excited for:

Georgia Tech at Florida State: The first weekend of ACC play offers a matchup of two of the conference’s traditional powers. Georgia Tech is undefeated going into this week, but will be on the road in a weekend series for the first time this year. The Seminoles are going through some learning pains with a young lineup, but have won their first three series.

Oregon at Mississippi State: The schedule doesn’t let up for Mississippi State, which just finished a 1-1-1 weekend at the Dodger Stadium Classic. The Bulldogs return home to face the Ducks, whose starting rotation combined to strike out 31 batters and allow just two unearned runs in 21 innings in a series win against UC Santa Barbara.

Houston at Alabama: Houston had fallen into a five-game losing streak before taking the final two games of its series against Baylor over the weekend. The Cougars got lefthander Seth Romero back from suspension last week and will look to build on their momentum as they head to Alabama for their first road games of the season. The Crimson Tide are off to a fine start after a 3-1 weekend at the USA Baseball-Irish Classic in Cary, N.C.

Two Weekend Series You Shouldn’t Overlook

Mercer at College of Charleston: Mercer, the Southern Conference favorites, have started the season well, winning their first three weekend series. The Bears and Preseason All-American outfielder Kyle Lewis (.447/.574/.851, 5 HR) will face their strongest competition of the season to date in Charleston.

Fresno State at (2) Texas A&M: While Fresno State fell from the ranks of the unbeaten Sunday with a 5-4 loss at San Diego State, the Bulldogs remain a potentially dangerous opponent for the Aggies. Texas A&M cannot afford to look past Fresno State to its March 15 game against Texas and the start of SEC play the following weekend.

One Midweek Game To Keep An Eye On

Louisiana Tech at No. 7 Louisiana State (Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET): Louisiana Tech already has midweek victories over a pair of ranked teams: Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas. The Bulldogs have done it in part by using Opening Day starter Tyler Clancy in midweek action, instead of on the weekends. They will look to pick up another big win when they visit Alex Box Stadium.

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