UCLA, rewarded as a regional host for its breakout season, may have drawn the toughest matchup of the NCAA baseball playoffs when the 64-team field was announced Monday.
The Bruins and UC Irvine were kept at home by the NCAA tournament committee, but both have to slug it out — perhaps literally — in a difficult regional at Jackie Robinson Stadium beginning Friday.
UCLA (43-13) is top-seeded in the regional and seeded sixth overall in the tournament. The Bruins will face Kent State (39-23) in a first-round game at 6 p.m. Also at UCLA, at 2 p.m., Irvine (37-19), which finished second in the Big West Conference, will play defending national champion Louisiana State (40-20).
"Whenever you stay out west you're going to get good teams," UCLA Coach John Savage said. "All of these teams are capable. We're looking forward to the challenge of one of the toughest regionals."
Big West champion Cal State Fullerton (41-15) will open its regional Friday at 8 p.m. against Big Ten champion Minnesota (30-28). Stanford (31-23) faces New Mexico (37-20) in the other game at Fullerton.
UCLA opened the season with 22 consecutive victories and was ranked No. 1 in the nation by Baseball America in early April. The Bruins finished the season ranked eighth, but their regional is the only one with three top-25 teams — Irvine is 21st and LSU 23rd.
"It's a strong regional, to put it mildly," Irvine Coach Mike Gillespie said.
If UCLA has an advantage it might be the depth of its pitching. The Bruins have a 3.02 team earned-run average — second nationally to Texas (2.59) — and four quality starters: Gerrit Cole (9-2 record, 3.27 ERA), Trevor Bauer (9-3, 2.84), Rob Rasmussen (9-2, 2.89) and Garett Claypool (8-3, 2.05).
"Most of us can only dream of having that," Gillespie said.
Irvine will have its top starter back. Daniel Bibona threw in the bullpen Monday and will be available, Gillespie said. Bibona is 9-2 with a 2.10 ERA, but has not pitched since May 7 because of a ribcage injury.
"We just have to figure out when we will use him and how long can he go," Gillespie said.
Arizona State, the Pacific 10 Conference champion, is the No. 1-seeded team overall, followed by Texas, Florida, Coastal Carolina, Virginia, UCLA, Louisville and Georgia Tech.
While Fullerton was not seeded, the Titans won 22 of their last 24 games and will face a Minnesota team that won only 13 of 32 outside Big Ten Conference play.
Fullerton will be without star center field Gary Brown, who broke the middle finger on his left hand on May 16. He will be reevaluated on June 7 and will miss the regional.
Still, the Titans have a wealth of experienced talent, including shortstop Christian Colon, first baseman Nick Ramirez and second baseman Corey Jones.
"I know everyone is talking about UCLA and the regional of death, but we're in a very good regional," Fullerton Coach Dave Serrano said. Still, Serrano said, "If we continue to play like we have the last 40 games, we can be a pitfall for opponents."
The winners of the two Southern California regionals will likely meet in a super regional, starting June 11. If the top teams in each survive, UCLA might go from favorite to underdog: The Bruins are 3-18 against Fullerton since Savage became UCLA's coach in 2005.