If there were any doubts how UCLA’s baseball team might respond to its first real test of adversity, they vanished with a flurry of home runs and exceptional relief pitching on Sunday, leading to a doubleheader sweep in the NCAA regional playoffs and forcing a final game on Monday against Loyola Marymount to decide a super regional berth.
The Bruins (50-9), ranked No. 1 nationally for 11 consecutive weeks, woke up early Sunday still drained from dropping into the loser’s bracket of the Los Angeles Regional and having to come up with a plan to find enough pitching depth to avoid elimination after Saturday’s 3-2 loss to the Lions.
At high noon at Jackie Robinson Stadium, UCLA hit four home runs while relying on five relief pitchers to secure an 11-6 win over Baylor. Then, in the nightcap, the Bruins hit three home runs and received five strong innings from lightly used freshman right-hander Nick Nastrini to defeat Loyola Marymount 6-1.
The two teams will square off one final time at 7 p.m. on Monday at Jackie Robinson Stadium to decide the regional champion and keep the path alive for a trip to the College World Series in Omaha. The winner will face the champion of the Corvallis Regional in a super regional next weekend.
Among the big boppers, switch-hitting first baseman Michael Toglia hit a two-run home run over the right-field fence in the first game, switched sides and hit a home run to left field in the second game. Chase Strumpf had a three-run home run against the Lions after going one for 10 in the postseason. Jeremy Ydens also homered.
Nastrini’s performance was one for Bruins lore in that he hadn’t pitched since Feb. 26 after undergoing surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome in his shoulder, where nerves and blood vessels press together. In pregame warmups, he twice threw pitches to the backstop, giving Loyola Marymount fans the impression UCLA’s pitching was facing desperate times.
“I knew I was prepared,” Nastrini said.
He threw five innings, striking out seven and walking one while giving up one run.
“I told the guys it’s one of the better Bruin outings that I’ve been a part of in the last 15 years,” coach John Savage said. “From where he was to what he did tonight in the biggest game of the year is just a remarkable lesson for our guys of toughness and competitiveness and perseverance.”
UCLA needed every inning it could get from from Nastrini because the bullpen had to throw eight of the nine innings earlier in the day.
“It was a long day for everybody,” Savage said. “Whenever you come out of the loser’s bracket and end up winning that Sunday night game, I’m really proud. The story tonight was Nick Nastrini. I can’t say enough for his discipline, dedication in the weight room and throwing program. When he was cleared he was ready.”
Savage said it was “all hands on deck” in terms of the pitching staff, and the relievers kept answering the call. Nate Hadley threw 12/3 innings in the afternoon, followed by two shutout innings against the Lions (34-24) in the evening. Closer Holden Powell threw a scoreless inning in the afternoon and two shutout innings at night.
Now Savage must find someone to start Monday’s game and prepare his relievers for more work. Loyola Marymount didn’t use closer Nick Frasso on Sunday, so he’ll be ready to come in whenever coach Jason Gill needs him.
Gill said the performance of freshman Alex Burge throwing 41/3 innings of one-run relief helped preserve the bullpen for Monday.
“We feel comfortable with who we have,” Gill said.