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NCAA baseball tournament preview: Texas takes on UCLA

The Longhorns take on an evenly matched Bruins team in the first tourney game of the David Pierce era.

College World Series - UCLA v Mississippi State Game One Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

No. 2 seed Texas Longhorns baseball (37-22) will kick off its NCAA tournament with a match-up against No. 3 seed UCLA in the Long Beach regional on Friday. The first pitch will be at 6 pm CST and the game will air on ESPN 2.

Texas and UCLA have very evenly matched profiles. Both are national powerhouses that won only 25 games in 2016 before bouncing back to make the tournament with stellar pitching.

Though both teams are in the top 20 in the country in ERA, both are out of the top 200 in batting average (UCLA sits at .260 while Texas is at .256) and they are within a tenth of each other in runs per game (UCLA averages 5.3, and Texas averages 5.2).

That said, Texas has an edge in this match-up. Not only because of slightly more efficient overall hitting and pitching, but because of history. The Longhorns dominated when the two teams faced off earlier in the year.

The Longhorns swept the Bruins in Austin this year in a three game series from March 10-12. Texas won 5-4, 5-2, and 10-5 in a weekend in which the ‘Horns averaged 10 hits a game.

Texas will technically be the home team in Long Beach, but the Longhorns won’t have the same advantage of home turf that the had in March.

The Bruins are also a better team now — UCLA is 9-5 since May 4 with a sweep at USC on its resume.

UCLA will likely start Griffin Canning (2.34 ERA, 7-3) at pitcher against Texas. Canning is a junior righty who will be a first round MLB draft pick next month. In his last start, he blanked Oregon in a complete game shut out.

Canning is a strikeout pitcher who has racked up 134 K’s in his 111.1 innings pitched. He gets up to 95 mph and his curve and change up have both been highly praised by scouts. Opponents have hit only .213 against him.

Canning gave up two of his five homers on the year in his start against Texas. Patrick Mathis and Kacy Clemens both notched solo shots, and Kody Clemens had an RBI ground out. UCLA had a 4-3 lead when Canning left after seven complete innings, and the Bruins would eventually fall 5-4.

The Longhorns will counter with an ace of their own in Nolan Kingham (2.99 ERA). The sophomore righty is no longer pitching at inhuman levels, such as when he had a 0.72 ERA in late March. The month of May wasn’t particularly kind to Kingham — he allowed 13 earned runs in 18.1 innings pitched.

Still, Kingham finished the month strong with a complete game against Kansas in which he racked up seven strikeouts, four hits, and allowed four runs.

Kingham allowed only one run in his six innings pitched against UCLA in March. Expect a pitchers’ duel with two dominant forces on the mound in Canning and Kingham.

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After Friday’s game, Texas will move on to play either No.1 seed Long Beach State or No. 4 seed San Diego State in the winners’ or losers’ bracket.

The regional round is double-elimination, so the UCLA game isn’t do-or-die for the ‘Horns, but winning the first game is a huge advantage. Here’s to hoping the Longhorns don’t get stuck in the losers’ bracket.

Hook ‘Em!