Having spent the past four weekends on the road, you can bet the UCLA players will think that nothing looks finer than a game in their whites at Jackie Robinson Stadium. Unfortunately for the Bruins, they won't have much time to enjoy the friendly confines because as soon as the umpire signals it's time for the first pitch a tough Arizona offense will step up to the plate. The Bruins are currently 8-13 on the year, but have won five of their last seven games, all on the road. In the other dugout will be a 11-10 Wildcats team that was absolutely brutalized at the hands of Arizona St. last weekend. The Sun Devils outscored the Wildcats 34-14 on the weekend as Arizona was swept away. At 0-3 in conference play you can bet that Arizona will come out with a sense of urgency and the Bruins better be ready to match it because they need a strong conference season to make a regional. If recent history is any indicator, this series should go to UCLA, which has won the last three series between these two teams.
Arizona's pitching is suspect, but they have a horse at the top of their rotation. His name is Preston Guilmet, a senior right-hander who has been one of the Pac 10's best pitchers for three years now. Guilmet has taken a step back this year though with a break-even record of 2-2 and startlingly high 3.58 ERA. It looks like the struggling Guilmet is long gone though. He was hit hard early in the season, but has pitched into the sixth or seventh inning in his past three starts while striking out over a batter per inning and winning two of those games. In last year's game versus the Bruins Guilmet went seven innings and allowed just three runs, two earned. With the experienced senior on the mound for Arizona Friday night (6 pm PDT), UCLA will counter with talent and little experience in freshman Gerrit Cole. Cole has the best ERA among UCLA weekend starters with a 3.24 and has a 2-2 record identical to Guilmet's. Cole does have firepower that Guilmet doesn't though as he's used his mid 90's fastball, filthy slider and surprisingly good changeup to strike out 13 batters per nine innings. Like Guilmet, Cole has been strong of late and gave up two runs in five innings last weekend at USC en route to his second win of the year. The series opener should be a pitcher's duel and you can bet over a dozen scouts will be in the stands to check this one out.
If you like to lean on history then Saturday's game (2 pm PDT) is the one for you. In every UCLA-Arizona series since 2000 the team that has won the middle game of the series has won the series. In this weekend's all important game it will be UCLA's Rob Rasmussen versus Arizona's Matt Veltmann. Rasmussen opened the season as the team's ace and pitched very well. He pitched like an ace with a sub-3.00 ERA, but he's taken a major dip the past two starts and now finds himself starting on Saturday. Rasmussen's ERA is now 6.23 after giving up three runs in 3.2 innings against USC and seven runs in two innings against East Carolina. Giving UCLA hope is the fact that Rasmussen has pitched better at home than on the road so there is a chance he can turn it around this weekend. To do so though he has to work ahead in the count, something he has struggled with of late. Arizona's Veltmann has been hit hard in nearly every start this year and the numbers show it. Veltmann is 1-3 with a 9.37 ERA this year and has only made it out of the fourth inning once in five starts this year. To say the Bruins should be able to put a few crooked numbers on the board early would be an understatement.
Sunday's series finale (1 pm PDT) will pit UCLA's Charles Brewer against Arizona's Bryce Bandilla. Brewer went six innings last year versus the Wildcats, but was battered around to the tune of eight runs. The Bruins were well ahead early in that game and Brewer was asked to do nothing more than eat up innings, but he was less than effective against the Arizona bats last year. Brewer has been much better this year though and especially strong of late. After a mediocre start to the season, Brewer has improved with each and every start culminating in 6.1 innings and only two runs last week at USC as he picked up the win. The junior right-hander is 1-2 on the year with a 4.00 ERA and has cut down on his walk total of late, giving him a greater array of pitches from which to choose from being ahead in the count. Arizona's southpaw Bandilla has had an up and down season as you'd expect from a freshman. Bandilla is 2-1 with a 6.23 ERA and has had a couple strong starts to go with a couple awful ones. None was more awful than last week's shalacking at the hands of ASU. Bandilla gave up three runs to the Sun Devils and din't record a single out. If the Bruins can hit Bandilla early, the freshman will surely have flashbacks to last week and it will be open season on the fences for the Bruins.
The Bruins will have an opportunity to get ahead early against the Arizona rotation and they better because if they get late into a game and are trailing the Wildcats, it's game over. That is because Arizona will trot one of the nation's best closers Jason Stoffel to the mound. Stoffel already has five saves this year and strikes out over 12 batters per nine innings. The rest of the Wildcat bullpen is extremely deep, but not overly impressive. They have a lot of competent arms and head coach Andy Lopez will have no hestitation to use any of them early and often, but none is dominant or overly intimidating. They're solid, but hittable.
While the Arizona pitching may put them behind early (and it likely will considering batters hit .307 against them), their hitting makes them a scary team not matter the score. Arizona matches their pitching's opposition batting average with a team batting average of .307 themselves. Arizona doesn't do it with the long ball though. Their 16 homers are fifth in the Pac 10, but their slugging percentage, hits, doubles, triples, RBI and runs all rank in the conference's top three. The offense is led by 3B Dillon Baird who is hitting .423 with 19 RBI and 19 runs. Baird is also content to take a walk and his on-base percentage over .500 shows it. SS Bryce Ortega is the engine at the top of the Arizona lineup and the Bruins' ability to shut him down or let him get going could determine the series. Ortega is batting .333 at the top of the Wildcat lineup, but has an on-base percentage of .433 and has stolen 10 bases in as many attempts. The Arizona pitching may not scare anybody but those on the other side of the outfield fence, but the Wildcat offense should scare every Bruin stadium this weekend.
The Bruins recent turnaround has come with the emergence of a powerful offense and much more sure handed defense. Casey Haerther was Pac 10 Player of the Week last week and shows no signs of slowing down as he hit a homer in Wednesday's win over Pepperdine. He is now batting .386 with five homers and 19 RBI on the year. Justin Uribe has spent time in the cleanup spot of late and has hit well in the spot. He is now .345 with three homers and 16 RBI in only 14 starts this year. His last at-bat wasn't too shabby either and he put a fork in USC on Monday with a grand slam over the right field fence. Cody Decker's batting average may be below what was hoped for him at .273, but he has a team leading seven home runs and has showed enough patience at the plate to take a walk so not many are complaining. Blair Dunlap and Eddie Murray have proved a capable one-two punch at the top of the UCLA lineup as well. Dunlap is batting .318 with nine stolen bases and Murray is hitting .323 with a team leading 21 runs. The UCLA defense has stepped up after an abysmal start as well having not made an error in their past three contests.
Both UCLA and Arizona have gotten off to starts that haven't quite lived up to expectations this year. Arizona wasn't expected to be strong on the mound, but nobody expected them to struggle as much as they have. The Bruins have a 8-3 record this year, but that's taking away a dismal stretch of 10 consecutive losses. UCLA appears to be the favorite in this series having had the upper hand over Arizona in the past few years while coming in hot to Arizona's cold. The Bruins also get to play the series at home, but Arizona's offense gives them a chance in any game and the three this weekend are no different. This series is key for both teams as Arizona can't afford to go back home at 1-5 or 0-6 in conference play, while the Bruins need to come out at least two games over .500 in Pac 10 play with a pair of road series on tap. With the Pac 10 down it could come down to UCLA or Arizona when the selection committee gets together at the end of the year so having a head to head series win could go a long ways. Who is going to win the series? Wouldn't a better question be who is going to win on Saturday?
Come out to Jackie Robinson Stadium this weekend and help welcome the Bruins back home in this key early season series. Tickets for this season are $7 for adults, $5 for children and free for Wooden Club card holders. If you can't make it out to the games, you can listen to it or follow it on GameTracker via the official site. GO BRUINS!!!