The bullpens, along with the defense, could be the deciding factors this weekend (Photo Credit: Official Site)
At this time last season, UCLA was 14-19. At this time two years ago, Oregon didn't have a baseball team. My how things have changed. Now, UCLA is the top-ranked team in the nation by two major polls and Oregon will visit Jackie Robinson Stadium for their first road series against the Bruins since 1979.The Bruins sit at 26-3 and ranked first in the country by Baseball America, an impressive feat for any team, let alone one that was in few preseason top 20's.
A #1 ranking is not nearly as impressive as what head coach George Horton has put together in Eugene. The Oregon baseball program was revived just last year and already they are in Regional contention with a 21-11 record against the nation's fourth toughest schedule. What the Ducks are doing is incredible and it's on the backs of their pitching staff, which has a 2.93 ERA. The Ducks' ERA ranks third in the country, behind UCLA's 2.36 team ERA, which ranks first nationally.
The Ducks can definitely pitch, but they struggle to both hit and field. Coming into the weekend, the Ducks are in the Pac-10 basement in fielding percentage, while the Bruins are tied for best in the conference. The difference in the Bruins' and Ducks' batting numbers isn't as big, but it's still large. UCLA is hitting .331 as a team, third in the Pac-10, and Oregon is hitting .276, ninth in the league. Individually, the Bruins have three batters in the conference's top 12, while the Ducks' third best hitter ranks 40th in the conference in batting average.
Once again, Friday night (6 pm PDT) will provide spectators with an incredible pitching match-up. UCLA will send Gerrit Cole to the hill, who will go in search of his first win since he won his first six starts of the season. The right-hander is 6-0 on the year with a 2.37 ERA and the most strikeouts in the Pac-10. Cole allowed only one run in six innings a week ago versus Oregon St. and last year versus the Ducks, he allowed three runs (one earned) in eight innings. He will be opposed by Tyler Anderson, who is 5-3 with a 2.16 ERA on the campaign. The southpaw has been tremendous this year, holding opponents to a .205 batting average, but the Bruins did tag him for five runs in 4.2 innings last year.
Saturday's contest (2 pm PDT) will match a right-hander coming off of his best start of the year versus a right-hander coming off of one of his worst. UCLA's Trevor Bauer struck out eight and walked just one in 7.1 shutout innings at Oregon St. to lower his ERA to 1.95 on the year. The sophomore ranks second in the Pac-10 in strikeouts and he enters the weekend 5-1 in 2010. A year ago, Bauer threw a complete game, allowing just two runs on his hits versus the Ducks. Opposite Bauer will be Oregon's Justin LaTempa, who is 2-2 with a 3.44 ERA in his senior year. LaTempa allowed five runs before being pulled after just 3.1 innings a week ago versus Stanford and he's allowed opponents to his .283 against him, the worst among Oregon starting pitchers.
As always, UCLA will turn to Rob Rasmussen on Sunday (12 pm PDT), a junior left-hander who ranks in the top five nationally in strikeouts per nine innings with 12.97. Rasmussen has won his last five starts to improve to 5-0 thanks a seven inning, two run effort last week. Rasmussen's ERA is down to 2.89 and he has struck out eight without a single walk in his past two starts. The Ducks have yet to announce a starter for Sunday, but odds are that it will be Alex Kuedell, who is 4-3 with a 3.40 ERA. At 9.66 strikeouts per nine innings, Keudell is the best the Ducks have to offer in punch outs, but he does let opposing batters hit at a .276 clip.
If George Horton and the Ducks were to ever make a statement, this would be the weekend to do it. Going on the road and taking a series from the nation's top-ranked team would establish the Oregon program no longer as one on the rise, but one already here. It would also do wonders for the Regional profile as they look to do what many thought was unthinkable by making the postseason in their second year.
The Bruins showed no signs of cracking under the pressure of being #1 when they demolished UC Riverside, 10-0, on Tuesday night, but Pac-10 games are another animal. With the pitching that the Ducks have, runs will be tough to come by and an error by the Bruins or missing opportunity could be the difference between winning or losing so there is no room for mistakes. UCLA is undoubtedly the favorite this weekend, but there is little margin for error this weekend and similarly, little margin for error in the Pac-10.
Things get underway Friday at 6 pm PDT and continue Saturday at 2 pm PDT before concluding on Sunday at noon PDT. 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. 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.