After finally reaching the postseason for the first time in his final season on the Hilltop, USF senior Connor Bernatz can describe the looming NCAA Division I Baseball Tournament matchup against UCLA in just a few choice words.
“We just want another shot at ’em,” he said.
Today, the Dons get their shot.
After seizing the West Coast Conference title Sunday and securing a postseason berth by earning the fourth seed in the UCLA Regional, USF (31-23) will face the vaunted, top-seeded Bruins in Los Angeles at 6 p.m. Fresno State and UC Irvine round out the regional.
It seems befitting that the Dons, making only their second postseason appearance under the tutelage of coach Nino Giarratano, begin their dreams of title contention against the same lethal set of arms that bested USF in February to kick off the 2011 season.
“I think the one thing we’ve learned from when we went to UCLA is how great their pitching was,” Giarratano said, citing Bruins right-handers Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, both of whom are expected to be high MLB draft picks next week. “I think [Cole] is the best we’ve seen all year ... by far. The guy’s got a fastball anywhere from 94-100 mph.”
But in analyzing the opponent’s most potent weapon, Giarratano breaks down his own club’s keys to belting the Bruins and advancing to a Super Regional and eventually, he hopes, a College World Series.
“I think it’s pretty simple,” said Giarratano, now in his 13th year as coach. “We have to pitch, we have to play defense, and execute offensively. If we can do those three things, we’ll be fine.”
Things however, are never as simple as they seem. Despite welcoming the tough Bruins matchup, USF will enter the UCLA Regional without Matt Lujan, their left-handed senior ace. Lujan, who was knocked off the mound and the starting lineup three weeks ago in San Diego, underwent Tommy John surgery on Wednesday.
“Matt’s been here for four years, and he’s worked just as hard if not harder than anyone,” Bernatz said. “It’s a shame to see him go down.”
“He’s obviously disappointed,” said Giarratano, the WCC Coach of the Year. “He’s the guy that pitched last time out against UCLA and lost 1-0 at the start of the season. So I think he wanted another shot at them. We’re just going to have to figure out how we’re going to be able to step it up.”
Stepping it up at the tail end of the season was sophomore hurler Kyle Zimmer, who will be on the mound today against UCLA (33-22). But despite having faced UCLA and Fresno State before, teams they will likely have to upend to advance, anxiety of bringing it to the big stage still lingers with the underdog Dons.
“If you don’t have butterflies and nervousness in an opportunity like this,” Bernatz said, “then there’s probably something wrong.”
USF (31-23) vs. UCLA (33-22)
WHEN: Today, 6 p.m.
WHERE: Jackie Robinson Stadium, Los Angeles
REGIONAL: Fresno State and UC Irvine meet at 2 p.m. in the regional’s other matchup.
Stanford (32-20) vs. Kansas State (36-23)
WHEN: Today, 4 p.m.
WHERE: Goodwin Field, Fullerton
REGIONAL: Illinois and Cal State Fullerton meet at 8 p.m. in the regional’s other matchup.
Cal (31-20) vs. Baylor (29-26)
WHEN: Today, noon
WHERE: Reckling Park, Houston
REGIONAL: Alcorn State and Rice meet at 4 p.m. in the regional’s other matchup