Over the past few weeks, the #7 Bruins have had a rough go of it. They've lost 6 of their last 11 after winning their first 22. Two of those losses came last weekend at home to Oregon, marking the first series that the Bruins have lost all season. As is the case in the Pac-10 this year, things won't get any easier going forward, especially not in the next two weekends when UCLA plays #16 Arizona and #1 Arizona St. First up is the Wildcats this weekend in Tucson, a team that has won six straight after taking a midweek contest from the Sun Devils in Tempe.
Arizona entered the season with low expectations after losing much of a team that didn't qualify for the postseason in 2009, but their young talent has emerged and at 27-9, are in position to not just qualify for the postseason, but possibly host a Regional. Pitching has long been the Wildcats' Achilles heel, but they've found solid pitching in 2010 and rank fifth in the conference with a 3.91 ERA. It doesn't touch the 2.81 ERA that UCLA has compiled or the 373 strikeouts that the Bruins have, 57 more than second-place Arizona St., who has played two more games, but it's a vastly improved number.
Combined with better pitching, Arizona's always outstanding outstanding offense has been able to lead the Wildcats to places they weren't dreaming of before the season. Arizona is batting a Pac-10-best .352 and no team in the conference has scored more runs than the Wildcats. They've done it without a ton of power, registering 24 home runs, a solid, but not mindboggling number. The Wildcats have managed to get it done without the power because of their high batting average, 74 stolen bases (second in the Pac-10) and by striking out the fewest times in the conference by a healthy margin. For comparison, the Bruins are hitting .319 with 46 stolen bases and have struck out 50 more times in just three more games. The Wildcats are averaging 8.4 runs per game to UCLA's 7.3.
Things get underway on Friday night (6 pm PDT) when two young talented right-handers square off. For UCLA, it will be the flamethrower Gerrit Cole, who is 6-1 with a 2.98 ERA. The sophomore has had issues of late though, giving up five runs in five innings last week versus Oregon and battling his control for near a month now. For Cole, who leads the Pac-10 in strikeouts, it will be imperative that he turn things around with a strong performance because he's going up against the likely Pac-10 Freshman Pitcher of the Year in Kurt Heyer. Heyer, a right-hander from Huntington Beach, has used a fastball at 92 mph and good offspeed pitches to put together a 6-0 record and 2.15 ERA, the best ERA among Pac-10 starters this season. He's coming off of one of his better starts of the year, allowing just two earned runs in 8.2 innings versus Washington St. last week while striking out 14, but he did throw 130 pitches so it will be interesting to see how the freshman bounces back from the high pitch count.
At least from a numbers standpoint, the pitching matchups turn in UCLA's favor beginning on Saturday (6 pm PDT). It's going to be Trevor Bauer on the hill for the Bruins, a right-hander with a 5-2 record and 2.65 ERA after an eight run (six earned) shelling at the hands of Oregon a week ago. The good thing for the Bruins is that last time Bauer got hit hard, he bounced back the next week with his best start of the season by tossing 7.1 shutout innings at Oregon St. Opposite Bauer will be another right-handed sophomore, Kyle Simon, who is 6-2 with a 3.39 ERA on the campaign. Simon had a rocky start last week, allowing six runs in eight innings, but it was more than enough to pick up the win. Last season, Bauer and Simon each came out of the bullpen when the Bruins and Wildcats faced off and while Bauer's 5.1 scoreless innings on Sunday earned him the win, Simon was tagged with the loss after allowing five runs in 4.1 innings.
The series comes to a close on Sunday (12 pm PDT) with Rob Rasmussen trying to continue his incredible starts. The southpaw has won his last six starts to get to 6-0 and his 2.52 ERA leads the Bruins' weekend starters. Rasmussen struck out six in 6.1 scoreless innings a week ago against Oregon to give him 46 strikeouts and just ten walks in his last six starts and lowering his opponents' batting average to a meager .200 on the year. For the Wildcats, it will be the talented, but erratic Daniel Workman on the hill. Despite his talent, Workman has allowed batters to hit .314 against him and it is no surprise that with that number he has a 5.96 ERA on the year. Remarkably, he is 2-0, but he is averaging just 3.2 innings per start this year.
The edge in bullpens goes to UCLA and by a long shot. The Wildcats have seven pitchers who have thrown at least ten innings this year out of the bullpen and all but one has an ERA over 4.00. The one arm that the Wildcats can turn to with some confidence is Joe Allison, who has a 2.45 ERA, but he hasn't be used too much, making just eight appearances. The UCLA bullpen has four guys checking in with ERA's under 3.00 ERA, headlined by Dan Klein, who has a 0.35 ERA thanks to 26 innings of one-run ball on the year. Klein has limited opponents to a .165 batting average and has struck out 36 to just seven walks.
This weekend marks a crucial point in the UCLA season. A few weeks ago, hitting coach Rick Vanderhook said that he was expecting a bit of a slump from the Bruin bats in the near future. UCLA's incredible number of runners left on base is evidence that the slump has come, but if UCLA wants to compete for the conference title, now is when they need to snap out of it. A series win this weekend gives them a chance to take the series next week versus Arizona St. and get to the final three weeks of the season trailing the Sun Devils by a single game. if they can do that, they will be in good shape because they will have the tiebreaker over Arizona St. and the Sun Devils finish with a very difficult slate of teams, but a series loss this weekend makes things very difficult on the Bruins.
UCLA and Arizona get things started Friday night at 6 pm PDT and the series continues at the same time on Saturday. It all comes to a close on Sunday at noon PDT at Jerry Kindall Field in Tucson, AZ. When the Bruins played Arizona last year and when they last went to Tucson, in 2008, they came away with series wins and they'll be looking to do the same this weekend. You will be able to follow along on GameTracker and also on my UCLA baseball twitter. Arizona provides an online video stream, but I it requires a $10 fee to get a monthly subscription to their All-Access content. Occasionally, they do offer games free so it's worth checking just in case. We will also have open threads up for everyone to jump in with their updates, thoughts, questions, etc.