Bracket Critical: UCLA Battles North Carolina - Preview

Kevin Kramer and Chris Keck photo by Scott Chandler courtesy UCLA Athletics

ORLANDO, Fla. – The No. 7 UCLA Bruins will do battle with the No. 10 North Carolina Tar Heels this weekend in a critical match-up with bracket implications. However, winter weather took Byson Field at Cary C. Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina as a host site out of the equation. So this crucial series has been moved to the warmer temps of UCF’s Jay Bergman Stadium in Orlando, Florida

North Carolina enters the series trying to erase its’ last Florida encounter with a west coast foe, having lost twice (1-6, 5-12) to the Long Beach State Dirtbags in the process of being eliminated from the post season in the Gainesville Regional last spring. The Bruins hope to make an early-season statement of supremacy, as they look to return to tournament play after being absent last season coming off a national championship and back-to-back trips to Omaha.

Both teams enter the fray unbeaten in this young season with UCLA sweeping the Hofstra Pride last weekend, outscoring them 43-10 at home, before beating the Cal State Northridge Matadors 7-3 in a midweek road contest. The Tar Heels swept the Seton Hall Pirates, who are pegged for third in the Big East preseason coaches’ poll, by a combined score of 26-11.

Surprising Start

A major contributing problem to the Bruins’ missing out on the 2014 post season was lack of offensive production, most notably in the power category. UCLA had a team slugging percentage of .325 (247th nationally) with eight home runs (tied for 267th nationally) while scoring 200 runs (tied for 256th in the nation). The Bruins expected more production with Kevin Kramer’s (RJr., INF) return to the lineup but nothing like what has happened to kick off the season.

The Bruins have already hit eight homers on the season with a .627 slugging percentage out of the gate. Kramer has hit a home run and driven in six while Chris Keck (Sr., INF) has emerged to lead the team with three homers after hitting one all of last season. UCLA’s offense has scored 50 runs putting them one-quarter of the way to last season’s total after only four games. The surprising bat on the squad has been that of junior catcher Darrell Miller who has opened with a .600 slugging percentage and eight RBI.

Who Is This Kid?

Last spring a kid from Stone Bridge High School in Virginia got a ton of Major League Baseball scouts’ notice. Chunking a fastball in the mid to upper 90s and an entire season pitched without allowing an earned run while recording 88 strikeouts is one way to get on the radar in a hurry. North Carolina freshman righty J.B. Bukauskas told the majors no, for now, and came to the Heels ready to play. The hurler earned his first start on Saturday in game two of UNCs double-header with Seton Hall and threw five innings without allowing an earned run on four hits with five strikeouts against a walk for his first collegiate win.

His stuff was good enough to warrant unseating sophomore Zac Gallen (RHP) from the rotation for at least the first weekend. It will be interesting to see what gives when his stingy arm faces a surprisingly more potent Bruins’ lineup and the dynamic arm across the diamond in the Bruins’ junior righty Cody Poteet who struck out five hitters over six innings of work on Sunday.

Pay To See

The potential Friday afternoon pitching match-up between junior right-handers is one that I would love to see with my own eyes. UCLA’s James Kaprelian is expected be matching up with North Carolina’s Trent Thornton in a battle of aces. Kaprelian is tabbed a NCBWA preseason All-American after posting 108 strikeouts and a 2.29 ERA in 2014 and according to Aaron Fitt at, “pounds the strike zone with an 89-94 fastball, a hard downer curveball that flashes plus, a slider that can be above-average and very good changeup.”

Meanwhile, Thornton attacks hitters with an amazing variety that is adept at keeping them off-balance. The junior isn’t likely to back down, regardless of the count, and has the mix to get opposing hitters out from any count against every hitter in the lineup. Watching these pitchers square off against these lineups is definitely a must-see for the second weekend of the season.

Trent Thornton photo by Joe Bray courtesy UNC Athletics

Trent Thornton photo by Joe Bray courtesy UNC Athletics

Seniors are set to battle as UCLA’s righty Grant Watson takes the hill potentially against North Carolina’s right-hander Benton Moss. Watson allowed an earned run over seven innings with five strikeouts without surrendering a walk in probably the best start by either staff so far this season. Moss struck out nine over five innings of work allowing a walk and two earned runs in his first start of the season.

Shut Down

Fans should expect to see short ball games as both squads have preseason NCBWA All-Americans as go-to guys in the pen to keep offenses under wraps late. The Bruins will run out senior righty David Berg more frequently than the postal service delivers as the hurler has 135 career appearances with 177 strikeouts against 38 walks in 204 innings pitched. Berg has notched 36 saves in his career with a 1.32 ERA.

North Carolina counters with their own closer in Reilly Hovis (Jr., RHP) who went 9-1 as a reliever in 2014 with a 2.25 ERA and 81 strikeout against 24 walks while holding opponents to a .194 OBA. The Heels also have a healthy Chris McCue back from an injury-shortened 2014 campaign who is capable out of the pen with a career 1.98 ERA with 85 strikeouts against 36 walks.

However, Berg and Hovis have had mixed results in the early going as Berg’s three appearances have netted four innings of work with two earned runs on five hits and a walk with eight strikeouts while Hovis’ looks to erase his lone appearance in which he loaded the bases with no outs, sandwiching a hit batsmen between a pair of walks. Then the closer surrendered a three-run double before recording his first out. After an RBI single the junior found his form to record back-to-back swing-and-miss strikeouts and end the game.

The remainder of both pens have been solid with the Bruins’ allowing three earned runs over eight and two-thirds innings with seven strikeouts against two walks. However, the Heels’ pen has allowed only an earned run over 11.2 innings pitched with 13 strikeouts against a single walk.

One Thing

Don’t sleep on the bats in spots 3-5 in the Tar Heels’ batting order as production can spark at any moment. Junior center fielder Skye Bolt showed great promise in his freshman season but tailed off last season. If the speedster relocates his groove this lineup becomes formidable. Sophomores Tyler Ramirez (RF) and Adrian Chacon (1B) have the necessary pop to keep pitchers honest, coupled with the early surge of another sophomore in Joe Dudek (DH). Ramirez has scored three runs and driven in six while Dudek has four RBI of his own and Chacon is hitting .600 with three runs scored and a pair of RBI.


  • The Tar Heels are averaging 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings as a staff.
  • Bruins lead-off man Brett Stephens (So., OF) has .619 OBA and 10 runs scored.
  • UCLA has 10 stolen bases after stealing 31 all of 2014.


If RPI is king then this match-up matters a ton with UCLA sitting at 31 and North Carolina rolling in at 130. Both teams will have ample opportunity to build on the RPI in conference play, but this series will figure heavily in out-of-conference RPI as a lot of Power Conference teams tend to avoid high RPI early, non-conference games, much less series against one another. Each team has the aspirations to, and the talent for, making a deep run that could end in Omaha so getting positioned properly will be a big advantage for either once tournament time rolls around.

About the Author

Mark West
Mark West grew up playing and loving baseball. In college, he found an interest in writing and reporting on sports. He graduated from Arkansas State University in 1999 with a Bachelor of Science in Radio and Television Broadcasting with a News emphasis and a minor in Political Science. Mark can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @MarkWestCBC Mark began writing a few years ago informally about politics and sports on various blogs, but has focused primarily on baseball writing for the last two years. He loves Arkansas State Red Wolves baseball and writes about the games and the players for the Red Wolves and the Sun Belt Conference. Mark is a member of the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, giving him official votes in the Dick Howser Trophy, Regional Players of the Year, and NCBWA All-America voting. Follow on Twitter @MarkWestCBC