At some point you run out of adjectives to describe the Bruins' 13-0 start to the season. I think I've used hot, fast, quick, blazing, flying, awesome, fantastic, tremendous and incredible. Truthfully, you can't praise the team and coaching staff enough for what they've accomplished to this point. Everything you could have wanted from the team, they have done and their recent jump up all five rankings indicates that people are taking notice.
Going beyond their perfect record (Arizona St. is the only other team in the country still undefeated), the Bruins have won games at home and done it away from Jackie Robinson Stadium. They have handed #18 Vanderbilt team their only loss of the season and Sunday's defeat of #16 Oklahoma was just the Sooners' second loss of the year. UCLA's 2.00 team ERA is second in the country and their .188 batting average against is best in the nation, as is their 173 strikeouts. The Bruins lead the Pac-10 in every major pitching category, including walks despite their high strikeout total. The Bruins also rank in the top three in the conference in every major hitting category except for doubles and triples and they lead the Pac-10 in home runs with 18.
The team has done just about everything and yet, there are skeptics. You can't really blame the skeptics either. The last few years of UCLA baseball has been an exhibition in underachievement. Time and time again the Bruins have fallen short of expectations, never more so than in 2008 when the Bruins struggled to make the postseason after entering the season #1 in some polls. As a result, observers are being ultra-cautious with this year's team and will make UCLA prove they are an elite team two, three and 20 times over before they acknowledge that this year's team is not a UCLA team of the past. Well, the Bruins chance to prove themselves is quickly approaching and if they can prove themselves in early April, all skeptics will disappear.
One thing that the Bruins have changed from past years was done before the season started. Head coach John Savage backed off from his difficult scheduling some and home cooked the schedule more than ever before. The Bruins' trip to Corpus Christi, Texas last weekend was their first venture outside of Southern California. Some of the opponents on the schedule didn't match up to past years' standards either, both by design and by fortune. Teams like Southern and Cal St. Northridge are far from elite teams, while Nebraska, Bethune-Cookman and Long Beach St. have all played below expectations to this point, giving UCLA an easier schedule than anticipated. The Bruins will now play an Oral Roberts team that is usually strong, but is struggling in 2010 and a Cal Poly team that was supposed to improve on their postseason appearance from last year, but is a shell of last year's team. After those two weekends, though, the Bruins season will be defined.
Once UCLA gets past the next two weeks, they will begin Pac-10 play and it's a challenging start that will tell us everything we need to know about the 2010 Bruins. Beginning on April 1st, UCLA will host #28 Stanford for three games at Jackie Robinson Stadium. That will be followed up by a midweek visit from an uncharacteristically struggling, but still dangerous Cal St. Fullerton team. After that, UCLA will head north for a three-game set in one of the conference's rowdier ballparks against one of the Pac-10's top teams, #15 Oregon St. If the Bruins can navigate that stretch, they'll really be onto something.
Stanford has had success this season despite the truly atrocious pitching of one of their top starters, Brett Mooneyham. Mooneyham is extremely talented and was expected to join Jordan Pries as one of the better one-two punches in the Pac-10. Mooneyham has struggled mightily, compiling an ERA over 11 and Pries hasn't lived up to expectations either with a 5.00 ERA. Even so, Stanford has a 7-4 record, including a sweep of #19 Rice to open the season. With a young team that is loaded with talent, Stanford only figures to get better. That means they should be better in Pac-10 play than before it and will be a factor in the conference's upper echelon.
Cal St. Fullerton is off to a truly dreadful start by their standards. The Titans had to run off three straight to close last weekend just to get to 7-7 on the year. Even though these aren't the Titans we are used to and won't be the top-five team most expected them to be at any point this year, they're still dangerous and the Bruins' bugaboo.
When the Bruins go to Corvallis, they may be on the way to their toughest series of the entire season. Oregon St.'s Goss Stadium will be packed with 3,000 fans and the 10-3 Beavers are coming together as a very good team. The added weather and entirely turf field give Oregon St. a home-field advantage every time they play at Goss Stadium. The Beavers will be the toughest team that UCLA plays on the road all season so combined with the difficulty of winning at Goss Stadium, this series will be of the utmost importance.
If the Bruins can make it out the back of that stretch of games, things will set up beautifully for them. Things are already going well with multiple regular California powers faltering (like Fullerton) to set the Bruins up well for the chance to host a Regional. I wrote this a week ago, detailing the dearth of California hosting options, and the only thing that has changed is that San Diego is really no longer even part of the conversation. UCLA is in a good situation to host even through no doing of their own as others struggle.
A favorable schedule after the first two weeks of April is also working in UCLA's favor. The Pac-10 is extremely tough this season and maybe the toughest conference in the country. A conference that is often slighted by the NCAA Selection Committee looks like they will get five teams into a Regional. Of those five, UCLA is one and Stanford and Oregon St. are the others. Those are opponents that come up in that crucial start to April. If UCLA can get through that, they'll still have to play the other two of the Pac-10's top five, Arizona St. and Washington St. Luckily for UCLA, both of those series will be played at Jackie Robinson Stadium, giving them an edge before they take the field.
Naturally, the Bruins still need to show up ready to play the next two weekends versus Oral Roberts and Cal Poly or they will get beat. While both opponents are down, they are not out and have a compliment of quality players so solid play is still necessary to beat them. The series against Arizona St. and Washington St. are at home, but that doesn't mean a win, just an advantage. The Pac-10 is also very deep this season with three teams in addition to the top five that can't be ignored for the postseason thanks to strong play.
There are minefields everywhere, but it is early April that will define this Bruin team. If they can play with the quality that they have shown in the season's first 13 games, they will be in a good position to come out the other end of their seven-game stretch in better position that could have ever been imagined in the pre-season. At the same time, a rough seven games leaves the Bruins fighting an uphill battle in the Pac-10 and in the minds of observers, Selection Committee members included. Is this a new UCLA program that is ready to challenge the sport's elite like they've done in the season's first 13 games or are they like the past Bruin teams who will fold when people start paying attention? However the Bruins fare, it is those seven games that will likely define them.