#6 UCLA Kicks Off Conference Play With #26 Stanford In Town

The UCLA defense has been much improved and one of the underrated reasons for the team's surge (Photo Credit: Official Site)

What does 21-0 mean for the #6 Bruins now? How about a big zilch, zero, nothing. On Thursday, UCLA will begin Pac-10 play with Stanford visiting Jackie Robinson Stadium and all those wins they've racked up in the early going will not contribute one bit to their goal of winning the conference. Thursday starts a whole new season for the Bruins and begins a key seven-game stretch that can set the stage for a UCLA Pac-10 title, national seed and trip to Omaha for the College World Series. Obviously, none of those things are won at the beginning of April, but no seven-game stretch will be tougher or tell us more about this UCLA team than the one coming up.

While the Bruins have been going up, up and up since game one, the #26 Cardinal have been on a bit of a rollercoaster ride. At 12-7 and 2-1 in conference play, Stanford is off to a nice start for a team playing as many young players aws they have, but it's almost startling at how much their season has gone up and down. They began the year by sweeping Rice, but then were swept by Texas. They rolled off six of seven after that, but then lost consecutive games to start last week before rebounding to take the final two games of their series versus USC. Now, they'll be charged with stopping the freight train rolling in Westwood.

The UCLA pitchers have been the best the country has to offer with a 2.19 ERA on the year, one nobody else in the nation can match. In Thursday's series opener (6 pm PST), Gerrit Cole will be on the mound for head coach John Savage's club and with him comes a 6-0 record, 2.63 ERA, 13.37 strikeouts per nine innings (sixth best in the country) and .167 batting average against (also sixth best in the country). Cole had a rough fifth inning versus Cal Poly last week when he walked five and threw three wild pitches to taint an otherwise solid solid. Last year versus the Cardinal in Palo Alto, Cole got a no decision after allowing three runs in 6.1 innings.

After Cole's outing on Thursday, UCLA's other ace, Trevor Bauer, will get his chance on Friday (6 pm PST). The sophomore enters the weekend 5-0 with a 2.33 ERA, 13.02 strikeouts per nine innings (tenth best in the country) and .170 batting average against. Bauer's eight innings of three-run work last week versus Cal Poly earned him the victory, pushing his career record as a starter to 12-0. Last year versus Stanford, Bauer had one of his poorer outings when he allowed five runs (four earned) in six innings of work, but he still did pick up the win.

Rob Rasmussen will close out the series for the Bruins on Saturday (2 pm PST) and will look to replicate the performance he had against Stanford a year ago. After coming out of the bullpen, Rasmussen threw three one-hit, shutout innings with five strikeouts to pick up his first save a year ago. This year, the southpaw is in the starting rotation where he has amassed a 3-0 record, 2.64 ERA and 13.78 strikeouts per nine innings, which ranks fourth in the nation.

Stanford has yet to announce their probable starters for the weekend, but odds are that we will see Jordan Pries, Brett Mooneyham and Scott Snodgress, even if we're not sure in what order. Pries and Mooneyham are extremely talented and were expected to lead the Cardinal, but that hasn't exactly gone as planned. Pries is 2-1 with a 3.44 ERA, which is below what was expected for him, but his complete game, two hit shutout two weeks ago against Pepperdine showed what he is capable of.

Mooneyham was a mess early in the season with an ERA well above 11, not because he was getting hit, but because he had no idea where the ball was going. Mooneyham has put together consecutive solid starts (one run in five innings and one run in six innings), but even in those starts he has walked ten in 11 innings. The southpaw is 0-3 this season and if you want an idea of how bad he was early on, his six inning, one run performance lowered his ERA about two full runs to 6.85.

The Cardinal have yet to find someone to throw the final game of their series' because Snodgress has struggled. The sophomore is 0-2 with a 6.41 ERA and he's managed just 19.1 innings despite making six appearances, four of which were starts. Snodgress is certainly no sure bet to make a start this weekend, but he's the best bet.

It isn't unusual for Stanford to start several freshmen in a game and for good reason. The Cardinal may have the best crop of position player freshmen in the country that boast both great baseball skill and athleticism. Stephen Piscotty leads the charge with a .356 batting average and fellow freshman Tyler Gaffney has hit at a .349 clip. Stanford doesn't have much pop, checking in at ninth in the Pac-10 in homers with just 12.

This weekend's series is of the Thursday, Friday, Saturday variety thanks to Easter Sunday. While being undefeated is undoubtedly fun and series sweeps are always welcome, the goal of every series, especially in conference, is to win the series. You take your 2-1 series win and run with it.

The Bruins and Cardinal will begin that battle for the series win at 6 pm PST on Thursday and follow that one up at 6 pm PST on Friday. The series will come to a close on Saturday at 2 pm PST. All three games are at Jackie Robinson Stadium and tickets are $7 for adults, $5 for youth 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. You can also stay up to date on all things UCLA baseball from game updates to news to analysis to links on my UCLA baseball twitter. We'll have game threads up as well with all the links for you to share your thoughts or comments.

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