Update (R): Due to impending rain, Friday's season opener has been pushed up and will be played at 12 pm PST instead of the originally scheduled 6 pm PST start. The possibility of a Sunday doubleheader remains and is being considered with the forecast predicting Saturday rain.
Another UCLA baseball season is set to get underway this weekend and expectations are at an all-time high coming off of the best season in school history that ended in the College World Series Championship Series. With what is widely considered the best one-two punch in the country pitching on Fridays and Saturdays, the expectation for the Bruins is to return to Omaha and that begins on Friday when they open their 56-game schedule with game one of a three-game series against San Francisco at Jackie Robinson Stadium.
In recent years, the Bruins have been outstanding to start the season, winning their last four season opening games and not losing a season opening series in that stretch. UCLA opened up the 2010 campaign with wins over Southern, Bethune Cookman and Cal St. Northridge in the MLB Urban Invitational, the first three wins of what became a 22-game win streak to begin the season. USF is coming off of a 28-28 season in which they finished poorly, losing 12 of their final 18 games and are picked to finish third in a weak West Coast Conference this season, making the Bruins clear favorites this weekend.
San Francisco brings back a good chunk of their team from last season, but those they did lose were gigantic pieces to the puzzle, including their Friday starter, middle infielders and catcher who was their top hitter. The Dons had the worst team batting average of any team in their conference a year ago, hitting just .280 and don't have any immediate impact freshman on their team. Stephen Yarrow is the only big bat to keep an eye on after smacking 16 home runs a year ago.
On the flip side, UCLA hit .304 as a team last season and average 7.3 runs per game to the Dons' 5.7. While they are not a power hitting team and do not rely on the long ball for their runs, it will be interesting to see how the new bats affect the couple power hitters UCLA does have. It will also be worth watching how aggressive the Bruins are on straight steals against the Dons' new catcher after a season in which they stole bases at a poor percentage aside from the now departed Niko Gallego. All in all, the Bruins held an advantage in every aspect of the game except fielding percentage last year, where UCLA was still solid and with the series being at home, it's one UCLA needs to have the edge in by the time Sunday evening comes around.
Friday's season opener (
6 pm PST 12 pm PST) pits UCLA's Gerrit Cole against USF's Matt Lujan. Cole is the obvious star attraction in this match-up as a former first round pick and projected top five overall pick in the upcoming MLB Draft and any time a pitcher can throw in the upper 90's he's likely to be the star attraction. In 2010, Cole went 11-4 with a 3.37 ERA, the third most strikeouts in the NCAA with 153 and he held opponents to a miniscule .205 batting average. Few teams have seen the type of power that Cole brings on the mound and his continued maturation along with a much-improved change up that is now a real weapon makes the junior awfully tough to hit. Lujan pitched in 17 games and made 13 starts last year as a junior and compiled a 6-4 record and 4.26 ERA to go along with a .278 batting average against, all numbers higher than most teams' Friday starter giving the Bruins the clear edge in starting pitching on Friday.
For all the talk about Cole, and there is plenty to talk about when a pitcher is as talented as Cole, in the last two seasons it has been the Bruins' other ace who has put up the better numbers and he will get the nod on Saturday (2 pm PST). Trevor Bauer throws five pitches and all for strikes, but it seems like he throws upwards of a dozen because of his ability to change speeds on all five of them. That kind of variety, outstanding command and an uber-competitive mindset helped Bauer go 12-3 with a 3.02 ERA in 2010 and lead the country in strikeouts with 165. All of that was on top of a team-leading 131.1 innings pitched and a .244 batting average against that is only unimpressive if compared to the sensational job the rest of the UCLA pitching staff did last year. Opposite Bauer will be sophomore Kyle Zimmer who will be making his first career start. The sophomore made only five appearances last season, all out of the bullpen, giving up five runs in 5.1 innings, but he did strike out seven thanks to a good 12-6 curveball.
If the Bruins and Dons split the opening two games of the series, the three-game set will come down to a pair of pitchers on opposite ends of the experience spectrum in Sunday's series finale (1 pm PST). UCLA will turns to a true freshman making his first collegiate appearance, Adam Plutko, while San Francisco will counter with a redshirt senior, Matt Hiserman. Plutko, a sixth round pick of the Houston Astros, is one of the more advanced freshman pitchers and a much too early candidate for Freshman of the Year, but he will undoubtedly be fighting nerves in his first start. Hiserman worked mostly out of the bullpen last year and made only three starts, putting together a 1-5 record and 5.71 ERA. Teams hit Hiserman well, to the tune of .317, but he struck out 25 to just four walks so he doesn't give anything away cheaply and makes hitters earn their way on base.
This weekend's season opening series is all assuming that the weather cooperates enough to get the games in. Rain is in the forecast for Friday night and all day Saturday, which prompted USC to reschedule their weekend with a Friday doubleheader instead of a Saturday game. Whether UCLA decides to reschedule their games this weekend is remains to be seen, but it is clear that they will be battling mother nature. Luckily, the Dons are scheduled to play a game against UC Bakerfield on Monday so they do not have a flight to catch on Sunday night and the series can be pushed into Sunday night if need be.
Tickets to a game are $7 for adults, $5 for children and free for Wooden Club cardholders. For those of you looking to follow along this weekend, GameTracker will have it and you can get all the in-game updates, along with links and other information on my UCLA baseball twitter. John Ramey and Co. will be back in the booth this season and giving you the play play online at the Official Site. The 2011 season is upon us and baseball is ready to step to the forefront again, hopefully in front of crowds similar to the second half of last season, which pushed UCLA into the top 50 in the nation in attendance for the first time in school history.