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2013 Los Angeles NCAA Regional Preview

Adam Plutko is experienced.Los Angeles will the site of one of the most intriguing regionals this season.  All four teams are within a couple hours drive, so they know each other, at least in passing, and their fans will have the opportunity to come out and show their support.

It also could be one of the most competitive regionals with light-hitting UCLA hosting and three lower-seeds that each have the talent to compete with the Bruins. But UCLA has the pedigree, having finished in the top three of the Pac-12 eight consecutive years. The Bruins also have the experience having advanced to the College World Series in two of the last three seasons.

Will anyone be able to knock them off at Jackie Robinson Stadium where UCLA is 12-3 in regional play the last three years?

1. UCLA Bruins (39-17, Pac-12 At Large)

Projected Starters & Starting Rotation:
C — Shane Zeile
1B — Pat Gallagher
2B — Cody Regis
SS — Pat Valaika
3B — Kevin Kramer
LF — Brenton Allen
CF — Brian Carroll
RF — Eric Filia
DH — Kevin Williams

SP — Adam Plutko
SP — Nick Vander Tuig
SP — Grant Watson
CL — David Berg

Adam Plutko (7-3, 2.60 ERA) and Nick Vander Tuig (10-4, 2.30 ERA) both boast multiple years of College World Series experience and finished with sub-3.00 ERAs, but it was closer David Berg that garnered the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year award this year. Berg was absolutely phenomenal at the backend of the bullpen for the Bruins, compiling a 6-0 record with 18 saves and a pristine 0.70 ERA — the best in the nation among qualified pitchers.

David Berg could pitch every game.

Despite topping out in the low 80s, the sidewinding right hander keeps hitters off-balance and gets them to pound the ball into the ground where UCLA is solid defensively — particularly on the left side. That’s where Kevin Kramer is joined by Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year shortstop Pat Valaika.

Kramer (.290, 38 R, 38 RBI) and Valaika (.262, 5 HR, 39 RBI) also are the offensive leaders for a team that is used to playing low-scoring contests. The Bruins aren’t strong offensively, ranking 259th in the country in batting average and 240th in slugging, but they make up for it with a pitching staff that has allowed two runs or less 26 times this season. The staff ERA of 2.79 is top 20 and the WHIP is fourth best while the defense fields at a .980 clip — seventh best in the country.

Key Player: Cody Poteet – The Bruins most established freshman arm could be a crucial weapon for UCLA. Poteet (4-6, 4.84 ERA) has been used as a starter and a reliever this season. Sunday starter Grant Watson started the season 5-0 with a 1.13 ERA, but hasn’t made it out of the sixth inning since. He’s 2-3 with a 5.85 ERA in his last nine starts. Could Poteet usurp Watson’s spot in the rotation? Even if he doesn’t, his versatility and ability to go multiple innings as a reliever will be crucial for John Savage.

2. Cal Poly Mustangs (39-17, Big West At Large)

Projected Starters & Starting Rotation:
C — Elliot Stewart
1B — John Schuknecht
2B — Denver Chavez
SS — Peter Van Gensen
3B — Jimmy Allen
LF — David Armendariz
CF — Jordan Ellis
RF — Nick Torres
DH — Brian Mundell

SP — Joey Wagman
SP — Matt Imhof
SP — Casey Bloomquist
CL — Reed Reilly

Cal Poly brings the most balanced team to the Los Angeles Regional. The Mustangs do everything above average, but not necessarily anything that will wow you. Instead, they get consistent production from undervalued stars such as Joey Wagman (12-3, 3.11 ERA) and Denver Chavez (.362, 53 R with 17 SB in 18 attempts).

A strong weekend from Jimmy Allen could be key.

Behind Wagman is lefty Matt Imhof (7-3, 2.52 ERA), who has been the most reliable starter for the Mustangs this season. But the strength of the pitching staff is the bullpen. Cal Poly can bring in power arm after power arm with the combination of Reed Reilly, Michael Holback and Chase Johnson.

Reilly is an old school closer capable of going multiple innings (2.05 ERA, 14 saves, 67 K in 57 IP). Wagman and Reilly are often paired together with Reilly finishing off whatever Wagman starts whether that calls for one, two or three innings of relief.

Chavez propels the offense and as the old adage goes, “as he goes, they go.” When the 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior second baseman and fellow tablesetter Jordan Ellis (.329) are getting on base, Cal Poly can score some runs with Nick Torres (7 HR, 47 RBI) and freshman Brian Mundell (10 HR, 38 RBI) providing the pop in the middle of the order. More was expected from Jimmy Allen and David Armendariz this season after both were named All-Big West last season, but now is the best time for them to get hot.

Key Player: Casey Bloomquist – If the Mustangs win one of their first two games, Bloomquist (6-2, 4.78 ERA) could be the guy that either pushes Cal Poly to the Super Regional promised land or helps send the ship down in flames. The 6-foot-3 right-handed freshman was the midweek starter throughout the majority of the season, but took over the Sunday role the last two weekends due to inconsistency from Bryan Granger.

After producing quality starts in six of seven starts, dating back to the beginning of April, Bloomquist wasn’t sharp in Cal Poly’s season finale at Pacific, getting knocked around for six hits and four runs in 2 1/3 innings before being removed. Will the freshman bounce back on the biggest stage he’s faced this year?

3. San Diego Toreros (35-23, West Coast Conference Tournament Champion)

Projected Starters & Starting Rotation:
C — Austin Green
1B — Connor Joe
2B — Austin Bailey
SS — Andrew Daniel
3B — Kris Bryant
LF — Lucas Hagberg
CF — Louie Lechich
RF — AJ Robinson
DH — Dillon Haupt

SP — PJ Conlon
SP — Dylan Covey
SP — Louie Lechich
CL — Michael Wagner

There are few teams as interesting as San Diego in the field of 64. You never know what you are going to get from head coach Rich Hill. He bats the nation’s premier power hitter in the leadoff spot, uses starters as relievers and relievers as starters and has recently grown fond of beginning games with a non-hitting pitcher on the lineup card in the DH spot — only to determine which pinch hitter to use in the spot based on the situation.

Will Kris Bryant do any trotting this weekend?

Whatever he is doing has worked well enough to get the Toreros back into the Los Angeles Regional for the second year in a row. Last year, San Diego went two and ‘cue after struggling down the stretch. This year, it is on an upswing, playing well and coming off a West Coast Conference Tournament title that saw them provide entertaining games throughout the week.

San Diego is never out of the game with an offense that can produce runs in bunches. Slugger Kris Bryant (.340/.500/.860), and his BBCOR-era record 31 home runs, leads the way. One of the most patient college hitters you will find, Bryant rarely expands his zone and is willing to take a walk — as he did a nation’s best 62 times this season. To open the WCC Tournament against BYU, Bryant saw 14 pitches in his first four plate appearances — all 14 were balls as he walked three times and was hit by a pitch. Later in the tournament, the Cougars decided to pitch to him and he hit his 31st homer of the season.

With the fourth most homers in the nation and seven different players having more than 25 RBI (for comparison, UCLA has two), the entire San Diego lineup can be dangerous. When facing pitchers that work over the plate, it definitely is. But how will the Toreros do facing elite pitching? They did score 25 runs in a three-game set against Oregon State, but 11 of those were unearned runs. Will the strong defenses of UCLA, Cal Poly and San Diego State (all top 50 in fielding percentage) give them extra opportunities?

On the mound, southpaw PJ Conlon leads the way. Compiling a 9-0 record and a 1.65 ERA, the freshman has come from off the radar to take over the role of ace for San Diego. After him, there are question marks as there hasn’t been much consistency.

Dylan Covey (4-4, 5.22 ERA) has the stuff and has pitched well recently, but has command issues. Louie Lechich (3-3, 3.13 ERA) is a veteran with College World Series experience from his freshman year at Cal. And freshman Troy Conyers is a wild card. He had only thrown 132 pitches this season until he was handed the ball in the WCC Championship game and threw a 123-pitch three-hit shutout of San Francisco.

Key Player: Michael Wagner – Michael Wagner has seen his role flip at the end of the season two years in a row. After leading the nation in saves for the majority of the year in 2012, Wagner started a midweek game late in the season and then was handed the ball to open the regional. This year, Wagner started the year as the team’s ace, but was pushed back to the pen to close games late in the year.

When he’s on, he can be a huge asset as a multiple-inning closer. Against Portland, he entered in the fourth inning and pitched the final 5 1/3 innings, allowing only two hits, to lock up a game. But since then, he has allowed runs in four consecutive appearances (9 runs in 6 1/3 innings) and had to be removed in the ninth inning his last two outings.

4. San Diego State Aztecs (31-29, Mountain West Conference Tournament Champion)

Projected Starters & Starting Rotation:
C — Jake Romanski
1B — Ryan Muno
2B — Tim Zier
SS — Evan Potter
3B — Tyler France
LF — Matt Munoz
CF — Greg Allen
RF — Danny Sheehan
DH — Brad Haynal

SP — Ryan Doran
SP — Philip Walby
SP — Michael Cederoth/Bubba Derby
CL — Bubba Derby/Michael Cederoth

San Diego State may be the No. 4 seed in this regional, but it has talent just as good as the teams it will be playing. From flamethrowers in Michael Cederoth and Philip Walby to toolsy hitters such as Greg Allen and Ryan Muno, the Aztecs have it all. It has just been harnessing that talent and making the most of it that has been difficult for head coach Tony Gwynn.

Philip Walby is one of SDSU’s fireballers.

The Aztecs finally played up to their ability in the Mountain West Conference Tournament, staving off elimination four games in a row, including defeating New Mexico twice in a row in the championship. (The Lobos were 25-5 in Mountain West play and hadn’t lost back-to-back conference games all year.) San Diego State earned the automatic bid and are riding high heading into the Los Angeles Regional.

Ryan Doran (8-3, 2.63 ERA), SDSU’s most consistent starter all season, will get the ball against UCLA rather than triple-digit hitting Michael Cederoth (3-8, 4.15 ERA, 104 K in 91 IP), who hasn’t been quite the same since missing a start with a strained oblique injury at the beginning of the month. Since the injury, Cederoth has lost all three starts and has a 7.41 ERA. With that in mind, Cederoth may end up fulfilling another role this weekend. According to pitching coach Eric Valenzuela, Cederoth may be the Aztecs’ closer this weekend depending on how things play out.

In the conference tournament, freshman closer Bubba Derby (4-3, 10 saves, 44 K in 35.2 IP) went five innings in his first career start and impressed the coaching staff enough that he could get the opportunity to start again this weekend. It’s basically an all-in mentality for San Diego State. Valenzuela said everyone will be available in Game 1 tonight. Anyone could be used in any role. Whatever it takes…whether that is Cederoth and Derby switching roles or someone coming back on short rest like Walby (5-3, 3.77 ERA) and Doran did in the championship clincher.

On the offensive side, Greg Allen (.297, .396 OBP, 50 R, 23 SB) is the catalyst atop the lineup. When he gets on base, good things typically happen. Tim Zier does a little bit of everything batting in the three hole. He was first or second on the team in hits, average, runs, doubles, RBI, total bases, stolen bases and sacrifice hits. Seemingly every time Allen and Zier get on base in front of him this season, Ryan Muno drove them in. Despite missing 19 games, Muno led the team with 16 doubles and 44 RBI and was second on the team with four homers.

Key Player: Tyler France – Last weekend, Tyler France played out of his mind inroute to being named the MWC Tournament MVP. He set a conference tournament record with 16 hits, batting .726 in six games, including four doubles, two homers and eight RBI. He saved his best for the final matchup with New Mexico with a double, homer, three RBI and three runs scored.

The coaching staff had concerns France had plateaued as a hitter in high school. After being the Freshman Player of the Year in California, his offensive game dipped rather than increased. France has been a consistent defender for the Aztecs, but he finally broke out offensively last week. Though it is a lofty comparison, Valenzuela said France looked very similar to New Mexico’s future first rounder at third base, D.J. Peterson, during the MWC Tournament. France isn’t near being the consistent offensive threat Peterson is, but can he continue his hot streak this week?

5 Top Players

1. Kris Bryant (San Diego) – Raw power for days. Likely to be selected in the first three picks in next week’s MLB Draft.

2. David Berg (UCLA) – From unwanted walk-on to best ERA in the nation. Sidewinder can throw every day — 91 appearances in two years.

3. Adam Plutko (UCLA) – Has been a big-time pitcher for UCLA since stepping on campus.

4. Tim Zier (San Diego State) – Can do a little bit of everything. Faster than he looks. Team leader.

5. Matt Imhof (Cal Poly) – Tom Glavine-type lefty. Mixes pitches well. Keeps hitters off-balance.

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