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SPORTS WEEKEND | COLLEGE BASEBALL

Baron Swings for .500 as Nation's Top Hitter

April 20, 2001|GARY KLEIN

Brian Baron of UCLA will graduate in June with a degree in history.

And the senior designated hitter from Newhall could very well wind up as historical subject matter if he continues at his current hitting pace.

Though his batting average dipped below the hard-to-fathom .500 mark this week after games against Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton, he still leads the nation with a .487 average entering today's opener of a nonconference series at Kansas State.

"It's been a big surprise--a wonderful surprise," he said of his success. "I've felt comfortable at the plate all season. And when you have confidence, you feel like there is nothing that can get you out."

Baron, 6 feet, 195 pounds, transferred to UCLA after playing two seasons at Northwestern. He batted .293 in 1999, but sat out last season because of a knee injury.

This season, he has played in all but one game for the Bruins (25-13). He has gone hitless only twice. His one "mini-slump," he said, was when he went three for 12 in a three-game nonconference series against USC in February.

"The ball just wasn't falling in those days," he said.

Maturity, work ethic and weight training have all contributed to an average nearly 200 points higher than his season total two years ago.

"I also changed my swing a little, so I'm hitting more balls in the gaps," said Baron, who has two home runs and 32 runs batted in. "I'm getting more solid base hits, not just seeing-eye singles."

The Pacific 10 Conference record for single-season batting average is .464, set by Don Lovell of former conference member Portland State in 1985. Keith Hagman of New Mexico set the national record when he batted .551 in 1980.

Baron acknowledges that it's difficult not to think about finishing at or above .500.

"I guess it's possible, but the odds of that happening are not very practical," he said. "When I go to the plate, I don't think about it. I just try to see the ball, hit it and help us get a win.

"The object of the game is not to go four for four--it's to score more runs than the other team."

Baron went three for eight Wednesday in UCLA's 11-10, 14-inning loss to No. 10 Cal State Fullerton (28-10).

He wasn't the only one who got hits in the 5-hour 54-minute marathon featuring 13 pitchers, 43 hits, six home runs and 41 runners left on base.

Shane Costa's single drove in Chris Stringfellow with two out in the bottom of the 14th, extending Fullerton's winning streak to a nation-leading 14 games.

With 19 games remaining, UCLA is still in the race for a playoff berth. The Bruins, 6-6 in conference play and tied for third place with Arizona, have conference series remaining against USC, California, Oregon State and Arizona State.

"I don't really care where my average winds up," Baron said. "If I'm hitting the ball and making productive outs by moving a runner with a ground ball to the right side or a sacrifice fly, that's fine with me. That's playing baseball."

*

USC right-hander Mark Prior has been the most dominant player in the nation.

The junior right-hander, projected as the top pick in the amateur draft, is 10-1 with a 1.20 earned-run average, his only loss coming in a nonconference game against Stanford on March 9 at Palo Alto.

Prior gets a chance to avenge the 2-0 defeat tonight, when No. 8 USC (27-13) opens a three-game Pac-10 series against the top-ranked Cardinal (31-8) at Dedeaux Field.

Sophomore Jeremy Guthrie (8-1, 1.64 ERA), a transfer from Brigham Young, will start for Stanford, which lost a nonconference game against San Francisco on Tuesday.

Stanford leads the Pac-10 with a 10-2 record. USC is second at 8-4.

"We have to win two games to stay in the hunt," USC Coach Mike Gillespie said. "Anything less than that and we're just jockeying for position in the playoffs."

On Saturday, USC's Rik Currier (7-1, 2.31 ERA) will face Jeff Bruksch (8-0, 2.25), a former Beverly Hills High standout who transferred from USC to Stanford before last season. USC's Anthony Reyes (1-2, 4.81) goes against Mike Gosling (3-0, 2.93) on Sunday.

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