UNO’s current players make history Friday when they face No. 1 UCLA in their first NCAA regional.
The Mavericks, however, believe they are playing for more than themselves in Los Angeles.
Senior pitcher Payton Kinney said they’ll take the field representing all UNO players from the Division I era. The Mavs had two teams that won conference championships but weren’t eligible for postseason play.
“Everything we do is for past players like that who never got the shot,” Kinney said. “They built this program to where it is. Now we get to take advantage and play a great team. I couldn’t be more excited.”
Kinney (11-1, 1.65), the Summit League pitcher of the year, will take the mound on Friday for a first-round matchup with UCLA’s Ryan Garcia (9-0, 1.42), the top pitcher in the Pac-12 this season. The Los Angeles regional is loaded with aces. Loyola Marymount starter Codie Paiva comes in with a 1.71 ERA.
Scoring on the opening day of the four-team tournament could be at a premium. But pitching depth may be what decides which team advances to a super regional. UCLA, whose No. 2 starter Jack Ralston (11-0, 2.43) would be the ace on most staffs, brings a national-best 2.59 team ERA into the weekend. Second-seeded Baylor has a reliever, Kyle Hill (6-0, 0.00), who hasn’t given up a run in 22 appearances.
Kinney spent the majority of his season pitching after Friday starter Joey Machado (6-2, 4.37). They’ll throw in the opposite order — as they did in last week’s Summit League tourney — this weekend.
“When you have a couple guys, you can be successful in these tournaments,” UNO coach Evan Porter said. “And we feel we do in Payton and Joey and a great bullpen behind them. Right now, it’s win at all costs. You’ve got to treat it like the last game of the season. That’s how we’ll roll into the tournament.”
The Mavs didn’t head to the West Coast intimidated. UNO opened its season at Southern Cal, a team that handed UCLA one of its eight losses. It beat the Trojans in one game and blew a late lead in another.
“We feel like we probably should’ve come away winning that series,” UNO first baseman Braden Rogers said. “We played some pretty good ball that weekend. Hopefully we do the same thing when we play them.”
Porter said UNO scheduled that series at USC in preparation for moments like this. Playing high-majors early in the season — or facing teams like Creighton and Nebraska in midweek games — has its purpose.
“We told them back then that we do this so, when we do get in a regional, we’re not going to be big-eyed or seeing all the big lights and all the fans there,” Porter said. “We’ve been through that type of setting before. I think that helps as you go throughout the season, even if you don’t come out on top.”
UNO won 31 games this season without claiming a midweek victory. It actually didn’t get very many of them in because of the poor weather in the spring. UCLA, on the other hand, didn’t lose a midweek game all season, going 11-0. The Bruins also won every weekend series they were in.
UCLA is an overwhelming favorite to win its regional, but the Mavs understand that playing a top seed in baseball is much different than in other sports. Pitching and defense can keep a less talented team in it.
“Literally, anything can happen in the game of baseball,” Rogers said. “You have to show up every single game and play your game and play up to your level. Anybody can beat anybody on a given day. It’s just a matter of going out there, playing your game, staying within yourself and having your teammates’ backs.”
Porter said his team is where every squad wants to be at this point of the season — in a regional and playing good baseball. No matter how the Mavs fare in Los Angeles, this weekend will set a new UNO standard.
“Hopefully, these guys are setting an expectation of what this program is capable of doing,” he said. “There’s been some amazing coaches before me and some amazing guys that have played for this university. I’m really happy for them, too. It’s a nice moment for UNO and something to build on.”