Zach Pettway filled in the Friday role nicely. (Shotgun Spratling)

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UCLA, St. John’s Leave Strong Marks

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LOS ANGELES UCLA head coach John Savage didn’t think to give sophomore righthander Zach Pettway any extra advice before the Bruins’ season opener. Pettway had to slide into the Friday night role because of a minor injury to expected top starter Ryan Garcia.

It was similar to how Pettway moved into the UCLA weekend rotation last year following injuries. And just like his freshman campaign, Pettway made the transition look smooth. He struck out nine and allowed two unearned runs in six innings and the Bruins rallied to beat St. John’s 3-2 at Jackie Robinson Stadium.

“He’s been in some big games…Pettway has experienced the Pac-12,” Savage said. “He’s battle proven, but with Garcia being down a couple of weeks, it’s good to get Pettway out there and I think he acted and performed somewhat like a Friday night guy, so we’ll take it.”

Mike Antico reached, stole second and scored in the fourth and sixth innings to give the Red Storm a lead. He was singled home Mitchell Henshaw in the fourth after reaching on a catcher’s interference and by Carson Bartels in the sixth after an error put him aboard.

St. John’s starter Sean Mooney turned a 2-0 game over to the bullpen after 5.2 stellar innings, but that lead quickly disappeared. The first batter after Mooney’s exit, UCLA pinch hitter Jake Pries, hit a deep fly to center field that hit off the glove of Josh Greene for an RBI triple.

An inning later, the Bruins scored the tying and go-ahead runs without getting a ball out of the infield. Ryan Kriedler led off with a bunt single for the inning’s only hit. A walk and a catcher’s interference call loaded the bases for the heart of UCLA’s lineup. Chase Strumpf walked to bring in the tying run and two batters later the winning run scored on a Matt McLain walk.

“Our bench did a good job with a big hit…and then we scratched a run with McLain’s walk. Happy with it. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a good start,” Savage said.

The Breakdown

Star Spotlight

Sean Mooney struck out eight in 5.2 innings. (Shotgun Spratling)

Sean Mooney was being a college kid, scrolling through Instagram during the offseason when he stumbled upon a video of a Miami Marlins pitcher showing his pitch grips. He saw a different variation on the way to hold the baseball while throwing a changeup and started playing around with the new grip.

Soon Mooney was throwing the pitch and was surprised to see he was getting the armside fade he was looking for and a velocity differential from the same arm slot as his fastball.

“Last year and my freshman year I didn’t really have a changeup,” Mooney said. “I would have to drop down. This year, I’m able to throw it from the same slot. It’s a lot more effective.”

He used the pitch to keep UCLA’s hard-hitting lineup off balance, using it more frequently than the Bruins anticipated. It was a weapon particularly against those batting lefthanded, who went 1 for 9 with five strikeouts.

It’s just another weapon that Mooney can use in his arsenal, which should put fear into Big East hitters, who were already not looking forward to facing the junior righthander listed at 6’1″. The former Big East Pitcher of the Year and Freshman of the Year, Mooney has only continued to get better each year since he was moved into the weekend rotation as a freshman. That summer Mooney joined the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team. He was only on the John Savage-coached team for a couple of weeks, but he still made an impression.

“Just being around him, I knew that he loved to compete,” Savage said. “I knew that he was a winner. They’ve got a legitimate No. 1 guy there, who is going to win a lot of Friday nights. He’s a good as advertised really. He could certainly be a No. 1 in the Pac-12.”

Savage also commented on Mooney’s polish, noting that he’s one of the rare college pitchers that understands the concept of maintaining a velocity, but still having a little more in the tank to reach back for on a couple of pitches each outing.

“That’s kind of a different level, those who can control that going to get more [velocity] with that command, I think is pretty impressive,” Savage said. “It’s a simple, simple approach. He pounds the zone well. When he walks a guy, it feels rare. Those walks [tonight] seemed a little bit out of character. He’s a competitor. He’s a big pitch maker.”

St. John’s head coach Ed Blankmeyer said describing Mooney is very simple: “He’s a winner.” Blankmeyer said Mooney is a position player that is pitching. He’s always cognizant of everything around him that is going on.

And Mooney has a fire to him.

When he struck out Michael Toglia to strand a runner in scoring position in the first inning, he let out an exclamation as he walked off the mound. He’s a high-energy pitcher that thrives on the big moment, but he’s also a dugout leader. In the eighth inning, as rain began to sprinkle atop the stadium, Mooney wasn’t bundled up in a corner of the dugout doing his arm therapy, he was squatted just outside the Red Storm dugout cheering and imploring his teammates.

“Big team guy. Leader. Team guy. Winner,” Blankmeyer said. “He picks the guys up in the dugout. Even when he’s out [on the mound], guy makes a mistake, ‘Oh I gotcha. Let’s go. Next play.’ That’s the type of kid he is. We’re blessed to have a kid like that.”

Game Changer

Matt McLain. (Shotgun Spratling)

UCLA’s lineup is one of the deepest in the country featuring six juniors, including unanimous preseason All-American second baseman Chase Strumpf and fellow top draft prospect Michael Toglia. But with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh inning, John Savage was excited a freshman was due up.

“It’s the guy we wanted up there,” Savage said.

Matt McLain isn’t any run-of-the-mill freshman though. He was drafted No. 25 overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks, but rebuked a $2.6 million signing bonus to attend UCLA.

Still, he quickly fell behind in the count. He fouled off the first three pitches from lefthander Nick Mondak, McLain’s first career at-bat against a lefty. McLain took a pitch high and then a tight pitch low that drew umpire grumbles from the St. John’s fans. He fouled two more pitches straight back, one hitting the backstop and the other deflecting off the catcher’s mask.

Pitch eight of the at-bat was in the dirt. Pitch nine was at the letters and a little inside. Wyatt Mascarella tried to pull his glove down to frame the pitch for the Red Storm. Home plate umpire Chuck Lyon wasn’t biting. He called ball four, giving McLain what proved to be the game-winning bases loaded walk.

“Matt is just learning really how to play at this level. He’s got tremendous makeup. He fought. He fought right in the middle of that at-bat,” Savage said. “He’s known as a hitter. It just goes to show your how mature he is. There was some good patience there and vision and he ended up winning that at-bat with a walk and changed the game.

“Really good at-bat, a mature at-bat. Matt’s going to be a very special player here, no question about it. He struggled a little bit tonight too, but it’s a different game, man. He’ll learn that. He’ll adapt. But he learned that at-bat just with his maturity and his plate discipline.”

McLain is not only adapting to the collegiate level. The high school shortstop is also adjusting to a transition to center field. It hasn’t slowed his offensive production as he’s starting to figure out the ways college pitchers will try to attack him.

“He’s just really squaring the ball up much harder now,” Savage said. “He can hit velocity. He can hit breaking balls. He’s going to be a special hitter, no question about it. I can’t say enough good things about Matt. He’s a pretty versatile guy. Eventually he’s going to be one of our infielders.”

Top Performances

St. John’s:

  • Sean Mooney: 5.2 IP, 3 H, ER, 4 BB, 8 K.
  • Mike Antico: 0-for-3, 2 R, 2 SB.

UCLA:

  • Zach Pettway: 6 IP, 2 H, 2 UER, 2 BB, 9 K.
  • Chase Strumpf: 1-for-2, R, RBI, 2 BB.
  • Kyle Mora: IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 2 K.

In Their Words

St. John’s RHP Sean Mooney talks about his season-opening performance against UCLA and what he’s done to improve his game in the offseason, including adding a new changeup grip that allows him to throw from the same arm slot:

St. John’s head coach Ed Blankmeyer talks about the impact of having Mooney pitching for the Red Storm on Friday nights and how a series against UCLA is helping Blankmeyer determine what he has on his roster:

UCLA head coach John Savage talks about the effort of Zach Pettway filling in on Friday night to start the season:

“Pettway is a competitor. That’s the one thing that he’ll give you day in and day out is a competitive outing. He looked like a Friday night guy to me. Again, it wasn’t perfect, but he did a good job of making pitches when he had to. … I think we would take that from a Friday guy every time — six innings, nine Ks, two walks, three hits, no earned runs. Maybe a few too many pitches for six innings. He is pretty pitch efficient, but he handed the ball off to Filby. … We were happy with Zach. He set the tone. Both him and Mooney were pretty good for Friday night first game of the year.”

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