Image credit: UCLA righthander Zach Pettway (Courtesy of UCLA/Scott Chandler)
LOS ANGELES – Coming into Friday night’s game between No. 3 Vanderbilt and No. 5 UCLA, the story to watch was Commodores righthander Kumar Rocker, coming off of missing his start last weekend, dealing with a deep, talented UCLA lineup.
It became clear relatively early, however, that it wasn’t going to be that type of must-see evening full of compelling matchups between Rocker and the best that the Bruins’ offense has to offer.
UCLA center fielder Garrett Mitchell, a potential top-ten pick in June’s draft, did battle with Rocker to lead off the game, with the outfielder getting the best of it. Sitting on a breaking ball, Mitchell lined the second pitch he saw, a slider, into left-center for a single.
But after that, the biggest battles weren’t between Rocker and the Bruins lineup. They were between the righthander and his command. Ultimately, Vanderbilt (11-4) and Rocker succumbed to those command issues in a 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Bruins (12-1).
Rocker put two men on in each of the first two frames, on the Mitchell single and a walk to Kyle Cuellar in the first, and then on a dropped third strike with Mikey Perez at the plate and a hit by pitch on Jordan Prendiz in the second. In both instances, he was able to lean on his stuff and get the outs he needed to put up zeroes.
He wasn’t so lucky in the third and fourth innings, though.
In the former, he walked Cuellar with one out and then gave up an RBI double to first baseman J.T. Schwarz. In the latter, he loaded the bases with two walks and a hit batter before he was lifted, and two of those runners ended up scoring.
In the end, he did give up just two hits in his three-plus innings, and he struck out seven, but it was the four walks, which were as many as he’d give up all of this season coming into Friday, and the 36 strikes out of 68 pitches that were out of character.
To its credit, UCLA also put together some good at-bats against Rocker and didn’t get overly anxious when he was clearly not the best version of himself, and it paid off.
“We really, I thought, competed and battled and ran some counts, we ran his pitch count up a little bit,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “There were some 3-2 counts, a couple of hit by pitches, and it just seemed like there was a little frustration, I guess you would say, that we did have some good at-bats. We strung enough (together) to where we got a couple big hits.”
Friday’s story, instead, was UCLA righthander Zach Pettway, steady as ever, quietly navigating through the Vanderbilt order.
He was perfect through the first four innings, and when Vanderbilt broke through for two runs in the fifth, they came with the help of a UCLA error that started the inning, and Pettway still managed to wiggle out of further trouble to preserve the 3-2 lead.
He finished with six innings pitched, giving up three hits and two runs (one earned) with no walks and four strikeouts, and he did it all on just 73 pitches. He probably could have continued into the seventh inning, but with UCLA’s embarrassment of riches in the bullpen, there was no reason to push the issue.
These are the types of games you lean on a standout Friday starter to go out and win for your team, and Pettway did so.
“Zach’s done that all season,” Savage said. “He’s our Friday night guy for a reason.”
Even in a game when Rocker wasn’t at his best, the contrast between the two starting pitchers, from a repertoire standpoint, was stark. Rocker was able to get himself out of some of those early jams by pulling out a strikeout pitch at just the right time or by simply overmatching a hitter when he needed to.
Pettway has the strikeout in his arsenal, to be sure, such as when he struck out both C.J. Rodriguez and Austin Martin looking in the first inning, but that’s not his game. And that’s an important point, because in a big-time atmosphere with a packed house and a potential number one overall pick opposing him, he didn’t try to do anything he wasn’t capable of.
He didn’t try to reach back for a little extra velocity or try to throw breaking balls with a little extra snap on them, and crucially, he didn’t try to match Rocker pitch for pitch. He just went about his business like it was any other Friday.
“I was just proud of him, that in a big environment, he didn’t get too excited,” Savage said. “He was himself and that’s a sign of leadership and that’s a sign of knowing yourself and it’s so important that we know ourselves.”
Pettway himself had the same takeaway.
“It’s think it’s something that Coach Savage and I have talked a lot about, on Friday nights especially, just going out there and being yourself,” Pettway said. “You don’t need to be someone else. I know what I have and what I can offer to our team, so it’s just bringing that to the table.”
So far this season, what he’s brought to the table is lights-out pitching every weekend. Through four starts, he’s 3-0 with a 1.05 ERA, a 29-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .141 opponent batting average in 25.2 innings.
The difference between Rocker’s electric stuff, which includes a mid-90s fastball and a slider that seems to disappear on hitters, and Pettway’s stuff, which is a notch below that, is easy enough to spot, but that really doesn’t do justice to what the UCLA righthander can do.
Over the last few years, his velocity has ticked up into the low 90s and that plays up even more due to his unique delivery, which Savage says gives hitters a bit of a crossfire look, and the way he is able to move the offering around.
“He can really pitch with his fastball,” Savage said. “His fastball has taken a jump. It’s 88-91 (mph). He’s got good angles to his fastball, he moves his fastball in and out, up, down, he pitches to all quadrants of the plate.”
It may not light up radar guns or create highlight reel swings and misses, but taken with his offspeed offerings, it’s an improved arsenal of pitches compared to what he arrived to campus with. But it hasn’t really changed the way Pettway has gone about things.
“I think I’ve still pitched similarly, where I’m just trying to hit the glove, wherever it is and just try to make pitches,” Pettway said. “That’s why I say I don’t want to get too wrapped up in just trying to throw hard and try to just (get) it past guys, because that’s not really who I am.”
Really, that’s Pettway in a nutshell. Whether it’s a sold-out Friday night with Vanderbilt in town and Kumar Rocker on the hill or something less than that, he’s the same guy. And with what he’s accomplished, in his career and especially this season, that’s great news for the Bruins.