UCLA’s Jack Stronach looked straight ahead, bat still clutched in his left hand, as he walked back to the dugout for the final time. Behind him, the maize-and-blue corner of Jackie Robinson Stadium went wild.
For much of Friday night’s NCAA super regional opener between the top-ranked Bruins and third-seeded Michigan, only the traveling Wolverines fans had made noise in UCLA’s home ballpark. During the first eight innings, Michigan starter Karl Kauffmann had kept the hosts off the board and the rest of the sell-out crowd in their seats.
By the time the Bruins faithful finally came to life in the ninth, roaring as UCLA desperately tried to rally from a three-run deficit, it was too late.
With the potential tying and winning runs on the corners, Stronach struck out on a breaking ball for the final out, sealing a 3-2 UCLA loss that puts the team back on the brink of elimination from the NCAA tournament. To reach their first College World Series since 2013, when they won the title, the Bruins (51-10) will need to win the final two games of the best-of-three super regional against Michigan (45-19).
“We’ve been in this situation a few times all season,” Bruins coach John Savage said, including when the club climbed out of the loser’s bracket to advance in the NCAA regional round, beating Loyola Marymount twice.
“This team knows how to bounce back,” Savage added. “We have another opportunity [Saturday night].”
On Friday, though, UCLA was mostly dominated. Kauffmann (10-6), who allowed just two runs and four hits while striking out eight across 8 1/3 innings, retired the first nine batters he faced and diffused all of the Bruins’ early chances. Double plays ended the fifth and seventh innings.
“He pitched the ball down the entire game,” UCLA first baseman Michael Toglia said. “He didn’t make really any mistakes.”
In the ninth, however, the Bruins got some luck. Kauffmann issued a leadoff walk before Garrett Mitchell and Chase Strumpf both reached on infield singles to load the bases. With one out, Toglia roped a two-run single into right field that trimmed Michigan’s lead to one and prompted Wolverines coach Erik Bakich to bring sophomore Jeff Criswell, one of Michigan’s other starting pitchers, out of the bullpen.
The move worked. Criswell forced UCLA designated hitter Jake Pries into a shallow popup that held the potential tying run at third, then struck out Stronach to end the game.
UCLA starter Ryan Garcia (10-1) also pitched well. In his 72/3 innings of work, the junior right-hander struck out eight and allowed just five hits and three runs (two earned).
However, Michigan scored the eventual winning run in the eighth after Ako Thomas doubled, advanced to third on a passed ball and came home on a sacrifice fly — giving the Wolverines just enough breathing room.