June 10, 2010

By Jonathan Raber
Special to NCAA.com

LOS ANGELES - Judging from recent history, it would be easy to assume that Cal State Fullerton heads into its weekend series with UCLA as the clear-cut favorites.

No strangers to winning, the Titans have built a storied tradition that includes four national championships and have established themselves as one of the country's elite programs.

In the process, they have dominated head-to-head meetings with the Bruins to the tune of a 59-24-2 overall mark, including beating them in a pair of games during non-conference play this year.

So it comes as something of a surprise to see Fullerton (45-16), who will be making an eighth straight NCAA Division I baseball Super Regional appearance, traveling to UCLA for this weekend's series, which begins at 7:30 p.m. (PST) on Friday at Jackie Robinson Stadium. The game will be aired live on ESPN2.

UCLA entered the tournament as the No. 6 national seed, while Fullerton was unseeded. The Bruins won their regional in three games last week, while Fullerton came out of the loser's bracket and needed five games to advance.

UCLA (46-13) will be hosting the first Super Regional in the program's history and is looking to turn the tide against its Southern California counterparts.

"I'm confident in saying that the winner of this Super Regional becomes the front-runner to the win the national championship," Fullerton coach Dave Serrano said.

For that reason, this win-or-go home showdown will be all the more cutthroat as both squads could easily make a case for an appearance in Omaha.

But it has been the Titans who have routinely made a habit of halting the Bruins' College World Series hopes, knocking them out in postseason play in 2007 and 2008 and perhaps gaining a mental stranglehold in the process.

Or maybe not.

"I don't think that means anything, quite honestly," said UCLA pitcher and Golden Spikes Award finalist Trevor Bauer. "We don't put any significance in historical numbers.

"We are two completely different teams than we were in the past."

UCLA will be out to prove that true behind a trio of starters (sophomores Bauer and Gerrit Cole and junior lefty Rob Rasmussen) with sub-3.11 ERAs and a combined record of 30-7.

Cole, who will start Friday's opener, and Bauer led the Pac-10 in strikeouts with 124 each on the way to earning second-team All-American honors. As a unit, the Bruins ranked second nationally in ERA (2.95) and first in strikeouts per nine innings (10.3).

"We feel that we have just as good of a pitching staff as anyone in the country, top to bottom," UCLA coach John Savage said.

UCLA will need every bit of that pitching against a diverse Fullerton lineup that features the rare presence of two first-round draft picks in shortstop Christian Colon (fourth overall to Kansas City) and Gary Brown (24th to San Francisco), who has missed 12 straight games with a broken finger but could return to action against the Bruins.

Speaking to the depth of the lineup, Brown, who is batting .438 with 31 stolen bases, and Colon, who had a .352 average and 64 RBIs, may not even be the most productive hitters. That honor goes to Nick Ramirez, who is batting .362 with 15 home runs and 71 RBIs.

"Our lineup can rely on small ball," Ramirez said. "But we also have guys in the lineup that can bang."

That was on display when the Titans rallied after dropping their first game of regional. They went on to win four in a row, including a 9-5 victory over Minnesota in the deciding game with Ramirez belting the go-ahead homer in the fifth inning.

The Bruins enjoyed a much easier route to this point, but the series is shaping up to be a classic showdown between two of the best teams in the West.

"We know we have our hands full," Serrano said. "And I think they know they have their hands full."