With the official Opening Day/Night for the Dodgers still a couple weeks away on March 31, local baseball fans got a chance to see some game action at Dodger Stadium last Sunday when USC and UCLA met in the Dodgertown Classic.
College baseball is never a big draw in Southern California, but the doubleheader (an earlier game matched up Georgia and St. Mary's), but a crowd of 11,000 took advantage of $7 tickets, free parking, and reduced priced concessions to listen to the ping of aluminum hitting a baseball.
The Bruins, coached by John Savage, had started out the season ranked as high as #2 in some polls. UCLA ended years of frustration of poor play in the postseason by getting all the way to the final games of the College World Series before finishing second to South Carolina. The Bruins returned the nation's #1 pro prospect in pitcher Gerrit Cole, as well as another ace in Trevor Bauer.
USC, which is to college baseball as UCLA is to college basketball, was a program in turmoil. Former Dodger catcher Chad Kreuter was let go in August after four seasons and a .487 winning percentage. Frank Cruz was named interim head coach for this season by Athletic Director Pat Haden.
UCLA started out 4-0, giving up just one run in those games. After that, the Bruins bats went cold. Extremely cold. Coming into Sunday's game, the Bruins were 8-5 and down to #13 in the polls.
USC was 4-10 entering the game and had lost its last five games against the Bruins.
A crowd of around 11,000 settled into the first and second decks of Dodger Stadium to take in the game. Each school brought a portion of its band as well as cheerleaders to give the game a much different vibe.
UCLA started freshman Adam Plutko, the team's best pitcher not named Cole or Bauer. USC started senior Logan Odom. Cole had pitched on Friday and Bauer on Saturday.
The game was like watching a baseball game from 1966. The pitchers dominated the action. Plutko struck out eight Trojans in six innings of work, but gave up two runs on four hits.
Odom struck out just four, but the Bruins were unable to make solid contact for most of the game, grounding out to the pitcher five times. (And two of those ended up as double plays.) The Bruins had two scoring "chances."
In the fourth, left fielders Cody Keefer walked and stole second with two outs. Right fielder Jeff Gelalich followed with an infield hit to short, but Keefer rounded third too far and was tagged out trying to get back to end the inning.
The Bruins other chance to score came in the eighth. Catcher Steve Rodriguez reached on an error by first baseman Ricky Oropesa. Then, with two outs, two consecutive Trojan relievers came in and hit UCLA batters with their first (and only) pitches of the game. (It wasn't a case of bad blood, but merely bad curve balls.) Finally, Chad Smith, the fifth pitcher of the inning, struck out UCLA first baseman Dean Espy to end the threat.
UCLA does not play again until Saturday at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. USC swept a two-game series from Louisville in the interim to bring their record up to 7-10. The Bruins and Trojans will meet for games that count in the Pac-10 standings starting on March 25 at USC.
The Bruins have now slid all the way to #24 in the Baseball America poll. Cole has put up a 1.78 ERA in his first four starts of the year, although he's only won just one of them. He has struck out 37 batters in just 30 1/3 innings pitched. Cole also retired the first 19 Georgia hitters he faced Friday night, although he ended up the losing pitcher. Bauer has a 1.71 ERA with 46 strikeouts in 31 2/3 innings. Bauer struck out 17 in 10 innings in a no-decision at Nebraska.
Through their first 14 games, the Bruins pitching staff has an ERA of 1.80 and has held opposing hitters to a .179 average. The Bruins hitters are batting just .245 on the season and have hit just three home runs on the season. However, as long as Cole and Bauer are pitching the way they are, the Bruins should be able to make the NCAA tournament, where pitching becomes even more important. UCLA is going to make people think that they are watching the 1966 Dodgers, who won the pennant despite batting .256 on the season and scoring just 606 runs.
Part of the reason for the low offensive output has been a change in the standards for aluminum bats. The NCAA has been trying to get aluminum bats to behave the same way as wood in order to reduce offense. And this year, those changes seem to have worked. USC has just four home runs in 17 games. #13 Cal State Fullerton has hit just one home run in 14 games this season.
At Dodger Stadium last Sunday, no Trojan or Bruin hitter hit a ball anywhere near the warning track. There was just one extra base hit, a double by UCLA DH Marc Navarro that landed in a fortunate spot along the left field line.
Whether or not the Dodgertown Classic returns for another year though is up to the Dodgers. NCAA regulations require that money from the event go to the Dodgers, not the participating schools. So the Dodgers will have to decide if the goodwill in giving the local baseball teams a chance to play in a big league park is profitable. However, since Dodger Stadium is making the McCourts a total of zero dollars when nothing is happening there, whatever is made from the Dodgertown Classic is likely more than zero.