Ace’s feisty style a tribute to hero
Bruins’ Canning says competitiveness was inspired by Dodgers’ Hershiser.
Griffin Canning’s pitching demeanor should come with a disclaimer: Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely intended.
The UCLA junior righthander doesn’t wear jersey No. 55 for symmetry’s sake. It’s a tribute to Orel Hershiser, the former Dodgers hero whom Canning tries to emulate with his get-it-done mentality on the mound.
“I’ve watched videos of him and I’ve heard stories about him, the competitiveness — and his nickname was ‘The Bulldog,’ ” Canning said, “so I definitely modeled myself after his competitiveness.”
Of course, it’s easier to be a bloodthirsty Bruin when you possess a four-pitch repertoire like Canning’s, which includes a curveball, changeup and slider that complement a fastball that typically ranges from 92 to 94 mph. UCLA intends to rely on its double threat of an ace at 4 p.m. Friday when the Bruins (30-25) open an NCAA tournament baseball regional against Texas (3722) at Long Beach State’s Blair Field. The game will be televised by ESPN2.
Canning will be making his postseason debut after having missed UCLA’s 2015
regional because a stress fracture in his back. His absence was a contributing factor in the Bruins’ defeat.
“It was tough to watch,” Canning said, “especially being the No. 1 national seed and losing in the regional to Maryland. Since I missed out a little bit my freshman year, I’m definitely more excited.”
Canning helped UCLA get back to the playoffs this season after the team failed to qualify in 2016, going 7-3 with a 2.34 ERA and a career-high three shutouts. He’s issued only 30 walks in 1111⁄3 innings, and his 134 strikeouts rank fifth nationally.
“He’s a pitch maker and he’s a tougher matchup just because he mixes [his pitches] so well,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “There’s not really something you can sit on. He’s a guy who can throw any pitch in any count and his stuff has really jumped this year. His fastball is harder, his curveball is harder, his changeup is better and his slider is harder.”
Canning is among 25 semifinalists for the Golden Spikes Award given to the top player in college baseball, but not being selected could have its benefits. It was Canning’s exclusion from Team USA activities and the Area Code Games coming out of Santa Margarita High that helped fuel his edge.
“A little bit,” Canning acknowledged when asked if the snubs contributed to his feistiness. “I mean, you don’t look too much into that. You don’t want to be the best high school player in the nation, you want to be the best 23year-old, so it’s a constant process of getting better.”
Canning is widely projected as a first-round pick in the June 12 amateur draft, but he’s in no hurry for his college career to end. He’s the leader of a young team that played the entire season without No. 2 pitcher Kyle Molnar, who underwent ligament replacement surgery on his elbow last year. The Bruins often feature five or six freshmen in their lineup and are expected to get back freshman infielder Kyle Cuellar, who was hitting a teamhigh .327 before being sidelined the last few weeks because of mononucleosis.
The four-team, doubleelimination regional in which UCLA is participating could be dubbed the Familiarity Bracket. The Bruins have played Texas three times (going 0-3), Long Beach State twice (going 2-0) and San Diego State twice (going 0-2). Top-seeded Long Beach State (37-17-1) will face fourthseeded San Diego State (4119) at 8:30 p.m. in Friday’s other game at Blair Field.
Canning did not receive a decision during UCLA’s 5-4 loss to Texas on March 10. He gave up six hits and three runs in seven innings — striking out four and issuing a season-high four walks — during a game in which the Bruins’ bullpen faltered.
“Texas is a powerhouse in baseball,” Canning said, “so you kind of know who you’re getting.”
So do the Longhorns. If Canning is his usual composed, dominant self, it could be Texas toast.
UCLA PITCHER Griffin Canning, facing camera, missed the 2015 regional because of a back injury. UCLA’s loss to Maryland was “tough to watch,” he said.