UCLA's Kevin Kramer (Aaron Fitt)

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Fitt: Impressions From UCLA-UNC, Miami-Florida

ORLANDO, Fla. — Thanks to the poor weather in North Carolina, I had a chance to watch four games in Florida this weekend between four teams that are all ranked inside the top 14. I watched all three games in Orlando between No. 4 UCLA and No. 6 North Carolina, plus Saturday night’s tilt in Gainesville between No. 2 Florida and No. 14 Miami. I walked away with the feeling that I had seen four legitimate Omaha-caliber clubs, even if the series in Orlando didn’t play out as expected.

Here are my impressions from a great weekend in Florida.

• UCLA coach John Savage exuded confidence in his offense this winter, in a way he had not in the previous two winters. He was convinced his team would hit. Considering the Bruins ranked 285th in the nation in scoring (3.6 runs per game) and 241st in batting (.252) during their 25-30-1 season in 2014, it must have seemed like a leap of faith when we ranked them No. 4 in our preseason Top 25.

It was easy for skeptics to dismiss UCLA’s robust offensive output last weekend against an overmatched cold-weather team (Hofstra), but the Bruins made a loud statement this weekend, scoring 26 runs and rapping out 40 hits against one of the nation’s elite pitching staffs.

After winning Sunday’s rubber game 12-4, the Bruins improved to 6-1 on the season, and they have scored 76 runs in those seven games. Last year, they scored 76 runs in their first 20 games.

One significant reason for UCLA’s offensive improvement is the return of shortstop Kevin Kramer, who missed all of last year with an injury. Kramer was an on-base machine this weekend, 8-for-15 with six runs in three games, capped by Sunday’s four-hit performance. He wore out the middle of the field but also pulled some balls to right; he was hit by two pitches, and he reached on an error. In short, he did whatever it took to get on base, and he was opportunistic and aggressive on the basepaths.

“It’s not one guy. It’s everyone that’s taking that same approach,” Kramer said. “We’re all kind of in it together, all swinging the bats really well. We’re a confident group, no doubt about it, but we’re just feeding off each other. That’s our goal, that’s our approach. Everyone feeds off that energy.”

UCLA's Ty Moore doubles Sunday against North Carolina (Aaron Fitt)UCLA’s Ty Moore doubles Sunday against North Carolina (Aaron Fitt)

The top half of UCLA’s order was particularly effective this weekend. Left fielder Ty Moore, a hard-nosed hitting machine, went 8-for-14 on the weekend, spraying the ball to all fields. Veteran third baseman Chris Keck appears to have taken a big jump late in his college career, reminiscent of what Pat Gallagher did for UCLA’s 2013 national title team. He hit cleanup Sunday and provided two hits and four RBIs, highlighted by a big two-run double down the right-field line to cap a three-run third inning that helped the Bruins take control of the game.

And UCLA’s talented sophomores have taken big jumps, as Savage hoped they would following a trying 2014 season that saw a number of those freshmen get major playing time and learn the ropes. Sophomore 1B Luke Persico has emerged as a key righthanded run producer in the top third of the lineup (and freshman Sean Bouchard appears on the verge of giving this lineup another key righthanded stick). Sophomore OF Kort Peterson delivered a pair of RBI doubles in key situations in both UCLA wins. And sophomore DH Brett Stephens was a menace in the leadoff spot Friday before getting his hand stepped on diving into second base, resulting in a fracture that could sideline him for around three weeks, according to Savage. Without him, Kramer stepped into the leadoff spot Sunday and was a major catalyst, but UCLA got good at-bats from all over its lineup in a 16-hit performance.

“They’re hard to strike out, for one thing,” UNC coach Mike Fox said of the Bruins. “They’re really difficult to strike out. They moved the ball with two strikes … I’m surprised the hitters this early in the year are as locked in as they are. It seemed like their hitters were really locked in, and I think ours were too. You wouldn’t expect that. This was the unexpected down here, very unexpected.”

• The strange thing about this series was that both of these pitching staffs are loaded with power arms who know how to pitch, and I did not see any reason to downgrade my assessment of either staff. But the two teams combined for 44 runs in three games.

That’s partly a testament to the fact that both offenses are dramatically improved from a year ago, and it’s partly a product of the conditions at UCF’s Jay Bergman Field. It played like the hard, fast tracks you often see in the deserts of Arizona, with choppers often bouncing over infielders’ heads or taking tough hops that resulted in a bushel of errors. Don’t read too much into the mound struggles or the error total (20 in three games between the two teams).

“The field conditions today were in favor of hitters,” Fox said. “I don’t know how many balls you could look at over the weekend that were beat down onto the ground on both sides … It hasn’t been the best baseball played on either side, I think John (Savage) would agree with that. But it’s early, I think everybody’s trying to feel their way through it. There are just some tough hops out there. It’s almost like you have to attack every ground ball.”

UCLA shortstop Kevin Kramer (Aaron Fitt)UCLA shortstop Kevin Kramer (Aaron Fitt)

The two shortstops seemed to take the brunt of the bad hops, as UNC’s Wood Myers made three errors in the first two games of the series, while Kramer made one Friday and another Sunday. But both are good defenders, and they’ll be just fine. Kramer made a number of nice plays on the run this weekend, and he is the glue for UCLA’s infield defense.

The defensive standout of the weekend was UCLA center fielder Christoph Bono, who just gets great jumps on balls and tracked down a number of tough sinking liners and balls in the gaps. I even overheard a couple of scouts commenting Sunday on how good Bono’s defense was all weekend.

• North Carolina should feel good about the state of its offense, despite the series loss. The Tar Heels had 10 hits Friday, 12 more Saturday, and 11 on Sunday, and they drew 12 walks over the final two games. And again, that offensive output came against a marquee pitching staff. I thought the Tar Heels, like the Bruins, got quality at-bats up and down their lineup.

“We thought we were hopefully going to be better offensively than last year,” Fox said. “It’s early, but we’re moving the ball, we’re not striking out a lot, and I think that’s the key down here. They’re doing the same thing. If you don’t make plays, both teams were scoring. I didn’t like the way we played yesterday defensively, but I’m liking what we’re doing offensively throughout the lineup so far.”

Toward the bottom of the lineup, I liked what I saw from Warmoth, a gritty freshman who had five hits in the series. Another freshman, Brian Miller, came off the bench in the second two games of the series and provided RBI hits. On Saturday, he flicked a 91 mph fastball on the outside corner to the opposite field for a two-run double down the left field line. On Sunday, he provided an RBI single and another single up the middle in his two at-bats. He might be the other lefthanded bat UNC needs, especially with Joe Dudek struggling. I told Fox Saturday that I had never heard of Miller until he came off the bench that day and delivered a key hit.

“We don’t want anybody to know about Brian Miller,” Fox said. “They’re over there in their dugout going, ‘What kind of runner is he?’ I wanted to turn around and go, ‘This kid can absolutely fly.’ I started to turn to John and say, ‘Just tell all your infielders to touch and go.’ He’s a great story.”

Fox said the Tar Heels saw Miller in a workout at his high school this summer after UNC lost six recruits to the draft. His brother runs track at UNC, and Miller is similarly athletic. He’s also a great student, so UNC was able to get him into school late to help fill some of their holes.

“He’s been a very pleasant surprise for us,” Fox said. “It’s crazy how it worked out.”

• One really encouraging development for UNC this weekend was that junior outfielder Skye Bolt looked good at the plate. Bolt got off to a slow start last weekend, but he is UNC’s most talented player, and the Tar Heels need him to return to the form of the first half of his freshman year, when he was a dynamic power/speed threat. He had four hits this weekend, including a no-doubter home run Friday against James Kaprielian, and he was also robbed of a home run Saturday when Peterson leaned over the low fence in right-center and brought the ball back. The switch-hitter squared up a few other balls too, particularly from the left side.

“He’s really looked good in preseason,” Fox said. “He’s kind of back to, I hate to say the ‘old Skye,’ but the Skye we saw early on. Coach (Scott) Jackson’s worked a lot with him. You saw the two-strike swing right there (on the near-homer Saturday), and that’s what everybody sees Skye Bolt can do — just flipped his wrist and the ball almost jumped out of here. I think he’s swinging the bat good right now.”

It helps that Bolt has protection behind him in the lineup in the form of right fielder Tyler Ramirez, an on-base machine like UCLA’s Moore. Ramirez walked in each of his first four at-bats Sunday, then jumped on a first-pitch fastball in his final at-bat and ripped it to right for a single.

“He’s a good player,” Fox said. “He plays the game with just a calmness and an ease about him, doesn’t get too high or too low. I think that’s one of his strengths, besides just his skill level, is he’s got a great temperament to the game.”

• Because there were so many baserunners and pitching changes, all three nine-inning games of the UCLA-UNC series lasted in the neighborhood of four hours (the longest was Sunday’s four-hour, three-minute affair). On the bright side, as one scout commented, it felt a little like Scout Day — we got a chance to watch one good arm after another. And don’t be fooled by this weekend; both of these staffs will be very good.

North Carolina's J.B. Bukauskas (Aaron Fitt)North Carolina’s J.B. Bukauskas (Aaron Fitt)

The biggest arm on either team belongs to UNC freshman righthander J.B. Bukauskas, who started Sunday’s rubber game. He pitched at 93-95 mph into the fifth and bumped 96 in the first inning, but the Bruins had success dropping their bat heads and just poking his fastball the other way. His 85-86 slider has promise, but it could use more depth, and his changeup is still a work in progress. Bukauskas (4.2 IP, 8 H, 6 T, 5 ER, 1 BB, 5 K) took the loss Sunday.

“J.B.’s not scared out there,” Fox said. “He’s not scared. I think he showed it a couple times when they got a couple runs, and he reached back and got a couple strikeouts there when he needed it. So he’s going to keep on rearing back and throwing it. His secondary stuff has got to take another jump, and when it does, guys can’t just go out there and look for that fastball and get the head of the bat out. I think he did fine.”

UCLA countered Sunday with junior Cody Poteet, a stocky 6-foot-1 righty with a quick arm. He pitched heavily off his slider, a short power pitch in the 83-86 range. He can run it over the inside corner for a strike against righties, or throw it with more depth and get them to chase it down and away. He also flashed a plus downer curve at 79-81, and his fastball sat at 90-92 and touched 93. Poteet didn’t have his best control Sunday, walking five and allowing four hits over five innings, but he competed hard and allowed just two unearned runs.

UCLA's Cody Poteet (Aaron Fitt)UCLA’s Cody Poteet (Aaron Fitt)

• Poteet wasn’t the only Bruin who stood out for his power breaking stuff. Ace James Kaprielian flashed a hammer in the same velocity range on Friday, and Grant Dyer’s downer curve was filthy in relief Sunday, ranging from 77–81 with sharp bite. Dyer, who pitches in the 88-91 range, has secured a role as setup man for sidewinder David Berg, and he looks well suited for it.

“We have kind of old SEC breaking balls,” Savage said before the season. “Kaprielian, Poteet, Dyer, (Griffin) Canning, (Nick) Kern — we have five or six 80 mph curveballs. They’re not 72-74, they’re 79-81. So we’ve got some swing-and-miss.”

Six-foot-9 righty Tucker Forbes has taken a huge step forward, and Savage said he envisions Forbes as his seventh-inning guy, with Dyer his eighth-inning guy. Forbes works downhill at 91-93 (he touched 94 on Friday and topped out at 93 Sunday) and works in a solid 80-82 slider that flashes plus with more power in the mid-80s, along with an occasional changeup and curveball.

UCLA also used lefthander Hunter Virant in all three games, though he faced just one batter Sunday and walked him. Regarded as an elite prospect when he arrived at UCLA, Virant pitched very sparingly due to injuries over his first two seasons, and his delivery has gone backward since high school, but he looks like he’ll be a useful lefthanded bullpen option this spring. He pitched at 88-91 this weekend and mixed in a sweeping 79-81 slider and an 81-83 changeup that was plus at times.

And of course, Berg is Berg. The sidearmer finished both of UCLA’s victories, getting his trademark sink and arm-side run on his 83-84 fastball on Sunday and mixing in his mid-70s slider.

• UNC’s parade of arms Sunday included Zac Gallen (also a midweek starter candidate), touted freshman lefty Hunter Williams (who faced two batters and allowed both to reach), righty Spencer Trayner, lefty Nick Raquet, and righties Trevor Kelley and Brett Daniels. They all presented different looks.

Williams threw all fastballs to his two batters in the sixth inning, walking the first and giving up an RBI single to the second. He pumped 93-94 mph heat and bumped 95, but his command needs refinement. Trayner relieved him and struck out the first batter he faced to strand men on the corners, then fanned the next two batters of the following inning as well, though the Bruins eventually got him in the eighth. He has a short, quick arm action that produces 89-91 fastballs that touch 92, and he features a nice power curve at 79-81 and a changeup with good arm-side movement.

Raquet, and aggressive southpaw with an uptempo delivery, pitched at 90-92 on Friday and worked in the 87-90 range with sink on Sunday. He mixed in a good mid-70s curveball with 1-to-7 break along with a low-80s slider and changeup. Daniels, another interesting freshman, also showed a four-pitch mix Sunday, pitching with an 88-89 fastball and showing a promising 79 mph slider, a decent 79-80 changeup and a big slow curve at 71-72 that he could throw for strikes.

UNC’s best relievers pitched in Saturday’s win, as Reilly Hovis, Chris McCue and Zach Rice combined to pitch the final 3 2/3 innings after taking over for Trent Thornton (who was very good for five innings before his command faltered in the sixth). Hovis sat at 92-94 and touched 95 in his first inning of work, then pitched at 91-92 in his second frame, while mixing in a solid-average to plus slider at 81-83. McCue is still working his way into top shape after being sidelined for the second half of last season with thoracic outlet syndrome, but it had to be a sight for UNC’s sore eyes to see him and Hovis pitching in the same game again. McCue didn’t have his vest velocity, working at 88-89 with his fastball, and he struggled to consistently locate his trademark 78-79 changeup, but it did show good action.

“He’s not totally back yet,” Fox said. “You’ve got to feel your way back through that surgery, and I think you’ve got to get out there on the mound more than once or twice, especially in that warmer weather. I remember back when Colin Bates was coming back (from the same surgery), it took him four or five outings to where we were like, OK. You’re seeing that today, he was struggling with that changeup. It’s not like riding a bike, you’ve got to pitch some to get better.”

The Tar Heels eventually called upon Rice to relieve McCue and get the final out Saturday. A low three-quarters lefty, Rice also pitched Friday, pitching mostly at 90-91 and touching 92 along with an 82-83 slider. Two other UNC relievers, righties A.J. Bogucki and Hansen Butler, also pitched Friday and both showed 90-92 velocity and 80 mph sliders.

So, to summarize, this is a very, very deep pitching staff. Roles will be solidified, and UNC will be outstanding on the mound in friendlier pitching conditions.

Miami's Zack Collins (Aaron Fitt)Miami’s Zack Collins (Aaron Fitt)

• Finally, a few thoughts from Saturday night’s game in Gainesville, Miami cruised to a 7-2 win in that one but lost a pair of one-run games in the series opener and finale. I had a chance to witness Miami slugger Zack Collins’ first home run of the year—a three-run no-doubter to right-center in the fourth inning that broke open a 3-0 game. Collins also singled and walked. He’s an elite offensive player, and as he finds his groove, Miami’s offense will be one of the nation’s best.

I got a chance to see Carl Chester run, and that was fun too. The Cheetah hit a fly ball to right field in the Miami fourth and glided to third base for a fairly easy triple, on a ball that would have been a double for most players. He’ll be a fun player to watch atop Miami’s order.

I got to see Ricky Eusebio make a highlight-reel catch in center field for the Hurricanes, something he does on a regular basis (Jim Morris often says Eusebio is one of the best defensive center fielders he’s coached). He robbed Richie Martin of extra bases with a diving catch of a sinking liner in the sixth.

Martin played well for Florida, making a number of tough defensive plays on the run and showing off good body control and an accurate arm. He also walked, singled and hit two other balls sharply that could have been hits if not for strong defensive plays. A crosschecker who was there said he came away impressed with Martin’s performance.

J.J. Schwarz homered again for the Gators. I saw him go deep Wednesday at South Florida, and this time he took Thomas Woodrey deep to left field in the sixth, though the game was already out of hand.

Woodrey rocked the Gators to sleep. A three-quarters lefty, Woodrey’s pitching style reminded me of former South Carolina great Michael Roth. His fastball sat in the 80-83 range, and his best pitch was a 68-71 changeup that he used to expand the outside corner, giving Florida’s righthanded hitters a lot of trouble. Then he could run his fastball in on those righties on occasion, but he makes his living on and beyond the outside corner. Morris said earlier in the week he’d love to have Woodrey in his bullpen, but he might find it hard to take the lefty out of the rotation.

A.J. Puk started that Saturday game for Florida and struggled. Puk has a great arm and all kinds of upside, but his control and command were poor Saturday, and he exited after 2 1/3 innings, down 3-0. I wouldn’t be surprised to see sophomore righty Brett Morales wind up in the rotation at some point, with Puk moving to a midweek starter or bullpen role. Morales was brilliant in Wednesday’s start against USF, throwing six perfect innings. Puk has the bigger fastball, but Morales looks like the better pitcher at this stage.

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