When it comes to great rivalries on the West Coast, it hasn't gotten much better than UCLA and Cal State Fullerton over the past few years.
Well, the Bruins and Titans will meet yet again this weekend in the Fullerton Super Regional, and both teams possess elite weekend rotations, with Fullerton having an extremely slight edge.
The Titans entered the fall with some questions marks on the mound, but have absolutely struck gold with outstanding right-handed pitchers Thomas Eshelman and Justin Garza. Eshelman isn't an overpowering pitcher, but he has great pitchability and has great command of the strike zone. Eshelman is Fullerton's version of Greg Maddux, sitting pretty with a 1.59 ERA in 107 2/3 innings of work, along with 78 strikeouts and an incredible just two walks on the season.
Garza, by most accounts, is better than Eshelman, and that's saying something. Garza is tough as nails and has a knife-fighter type of attitude on the mound. He has a fastball that sits 91-94, with the ability to get up to 95, while he has a mid-80s slider and low-80s changeup. Garza has a 1.92 ERA in 108 innings, along with 89 strikeouts and 16 walks.
Also keep an eye on Grahamm Wiest. Though he's been overshadowed by the big two of Eshelman and Garza, Wiest shined last weekend to begin the Fullerton Regional. Wiest, not an overpowering guy, but a very solid pitcher who commands the zone, has a 3.27 ERA in 104 2/3 innings, along with 76 strikeouts and 13 walks.
As impressive as the Fullerton starting rotation is, the UCLA rotation is just about impressive for different reasons. In terms of pitchability, the Bruins are fantastic with veteran right-handed pitchers Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig leading the charge.
Plutko isn't an overpowering arm by any means, but can run it up anywhere from 88-92 at times. Plutko just does a good job of commanding the zone, and that much is evident by his 2.51 ERA in 104 innings, along with 75 strikeouts and 26 walks. Vander Tuig is pretty much in the same boat with a fastball that can touch 92 at times, while he has a 2.51 ERA in 107 2/3 innings of work.
There's also sophomore left-handed pitcher Grant Watson. Like the other two in the rotation, he's not going to overwhelm you with his fastball. As a matter of fact, Watson typically sits in the mid-to-upper 80s with his fastball, but he also has a 79-80 changeup and 73-75 curveball. Watson has a 3.22 ERA in 86 2/3 innings of work so far this season.
The Bruins and Titans are about as equal as it gets from a bullpen standpoint, as both clubs have premium arms they consistently go to in the latter innings.
For now, we're giving a slight advantage to UCLA.
The Bruins have one of the top closers in college baseball, if not the top closer, in right-handed pitcher David Berg. Berg has an unorthodox, sling, type of motion, and his fastball is only low-to-mid 80s. However, his overall stuff is filthy, as he has an 0.81 ERA and 20 saves in 44 appearances so far this season. He also has 69 strikeouts and seven walks.
Freshman right-handed pitcher James Kaprielian was injured earlier in the season, but is back and healthy and continues to show off a power fastball that can touch 94 on the radar gun. Kaprielian is mature beyond his years and has a 1.46 ERA in 37 innings, along with 50 strikeouts and 21 walks, while Zack Weiss has a 2.37 ERA in 38 innings and Cody Poteet, a freshman power arm, also has the ability to come out of the bullpen with a 4.84 ERA in 70 2/3 innings.
For the Titans, two-way star Michael Lorenzen is the key arm out of the bullpen. Lorenzen typically just closes games for the Titans and has a fastball up to 97-98, along with 19 saves and a 1.99 ERA in 22 2/3 innings of work. Teams are hitting Lorenzen at a .205 clip.
The Titans have plenty of other options out of the bullpen as well, with Tyler Peitzmeier a headliner with an 0.59 ERA in 30 2/3 innings of work, along with J.D. Davis, who has a 2.14 ERA in 21 innings and Koby Gauna and Willie Kuhl, who each have earned-run averages below four this spring, with Gauna tallying a 2.60 ERA in 55 1/3 innings of work.
Overall, it's tough to pick this category between the Bruins and Titans, but I really like the combination of Kaprielian and Berg on the back end of games.
There's no doubt the UCLA Bruins are very opportunistic from an offensive standpoint. The Bruins are hitting just .252 on the season, but do a good job of taking advantage of the situation when runners are on base.
The Titans certainly have the overall advantage from an offensive standpoint entering the weekend. Speedy center fielder Michael Lorenzen is having a solid campaign with a .335 average, seven homers and 53 RBIs, along with 12 stolen bases. The big development with Lorenzen's game this season is his offensive consistency.
Veteran first baseman Carlos Lopez is having a solid campaign with a .335 average, four homers and 34 RBIs, while two-way player J.D. Davis is an imposing threat with a .327 average, four homers and 49 RBIs.
Chad Wallach (.303/2/32), Matt Chapman (.291/5/37) and Austin Diemer (.319/0/12) are others to watch, while though shortstop Richy Pedroza is only hitting .270, he has the ability to cause some trouble if he can get on base with 10 stolen bases.
For the Bruins, third baseman Kevin Kramer has impressed opposing coaches with his defensive skills, but he also leads the club with a .285 batting average, 11 doubles, three homers and 40 RBIs, along with nine stolen bases.
Cody Regis is only hitting .240 on the year, but is a veteran who has a chance to have a big weekend against the Titans. Meanwhile, also keep an eye on Pat Gallagher, who's hitting .272 with a home run and 17 RBIs and earned Most Outstanding Player honors in last week's Los Angeles regional, while shortstop Pat Valaika is hitting .260 with five homers and 42 RBIs, showing some good pop at times.
Also worth noting, Brian Carroll is only hitting .259 with 20 RBIs, but he's a guy who makes things go once he gets on base. Carroll is 29-for-36 in stolen bases this season, while Eric Filia is hitting .266 with a home run and 24 RBIs.
An interesting and last note, the Bruins have 19 homers for the season, while Fullerton has 35.
Both the Bruins and Titans have a tendency to be very crisp in the field, especially on the left side of the infield.
The Bruins have earned plenty of praise from opposing coaches with how third baseman Kevin Kramer and shortstop Pat Valaika have performed, while Shane Zeile is consistent behind the plate and the outfield is anchored by athletic center fielder and leadoff hitter Brian Carroll.
Also worth noting, veteran infielder Cody Regis has been clean at second base this season, and actually enters the weekend with a fantastic .985 fielding percentage.
On the Fullerton side of things, third baseman Matt Chapman is a good defender, while shortstop Richy Pedroza has a knack for making the big plays. Meanwhile, first baseman Carlos Lopez is a big target and consistent, while catcher Chad Wallach is sturdy behind the plate.
In the outfield, Lorenzen makes this club go. While Austin Diemer, Greg Velazquez and Austin Kingsolver are solid out there, Lorenzen has the ability to track down any ball, along with having a plus arm at his position.
Don't look for either team to make a lot of defensive mistakes this weekend.