UCLA returns to Dodger Stadium on Sunday to play USC in the finale of the second annual Dodgertown Classic (Photo Credit: Official Site)
With series losses in consecutive weekends, UCLA no longer looks like the national championship contender that most expected them to be before the season. Of course, determining a team's quality three weeks into the season is only slightly less ludicrous than doing so before the season so writing off the Bruins already is the first step to institutionalization. UCLA is just three weeks away from the beginning of Pac-10 play though so they are getting to the point in the season where they need to start getting closer to their best.
This weekend, UCLA will try to get back on track at the Dodgertown Classic. The three day, four team tournament is played at UCLA's Jackie Robinson Stadium and USC's Dedeaux Field on Friday and Saturday before a Sunday doubleheader at Dodger Stadium. This season, Georgia and St. Mary's join the Bruins and Trojans in the tournament and while Sunday is only one-third of the tournament, it is the jewel of the weekend because the college game gets its chance to shine on the big stage at Chavez Ravine. Last year, the Sunday game between UCLA and USC drew nearly 15,000 fans, well above what anyone expected.
As fantastic as the tournament is, there is a bit of disappointment this season because none of the four teams are playing to expectations early on in the 2011 seaso. UCLA is obviously falling short of expectations thus far, as is USC, who is 3-9 under interim head coach Frank Cruz. Georgia, a 2008 College World Series runner up, is also off to a poor start at 5-8 and St. Mary's can't be pleased with their 3-6 start. What was supposed to be a strong tournament doesn't look to be at the moment, but all still have quality talent and could very well pick up quality wins this weekend when the selection committee looks back on it in May.
When UCLA begins their Dodgertown Classic weekend on Friday (6 pm PST) against Georgia, they will do so with Gerrit Cole on the hill. The big right-hander was at his best just a week ago when he carried a perfect game through 6.2 innings at Nebraska. In his nine innings of work, Cole allowed just two hits and struck out eight without allowing a run, but did not factor in the decision. He comes into Friday with a 1.16 ERA and just four walks to 25 strike outs, but his record stands at just 1-1.
The Bulldogs will counter with a sophomore left-hander in search of his first win of the season, Alex Wood. Wood is coming off of a rough start against Florida St. where he gave up six runs, five earned, in just 4.2 innings to drop to 0-2 with a 6.52 ERA on the year. The sophomore doesn't walk many and can find the strike zone, but he's been hit hard as opponents carry a .351 batting average against him on the year.
With a pitching staff that hasn't been up to par, Georgia needs top notch hitting. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they haven't gotten top notch hitting. That isn't to say they're a poor hitting team, but it is not eye opening. The Bulldogs do have a few hitters who are fantastic though and will challenge the Bruin pitchers. Levi Hyams hit .333 last year and has bettered that so far this season with a .340 average. Three other Bulldogs are hitting over .300, but Zach Cone is one to keep an eye on with a .319 average and speed on the bases.
The second and final game of the weekend at Jackie Robinson Stadium this weekend will see UCLA take on St. Mary's on Saturday (2 pm PST). Trevor Bauer will get the nod for the Bruins and do his best to replicate his performance from a week ago that netted him National Pitcher of the Week honors. The junior struck out 17 in 10 innings of one-run ball to lower his ERA to 1.85 on the year. Bauer threw 129 pitches in the game though and it is often said that long outings like Bauer's usually show in the next game that the pitcher goes in so it will be interesting to see how the right-hander fares against the Gaels.
Those Gaels will turn to Martin Agosta, who must understand how the UCLA pitchers feel. Agosta has allowed one earned run in each of his two starts this season, but the Gaels were shut out in one of those games and committed errors that led to two unearned runs in the other so the sophomore is 0-2 despite a 1.64 ERA.
Agosta knows how the UCLA pitchers feel because St. Mary's is hitting similarly to the Bruins. The Gaels carry a .224 batting average into the game and like UCLA, have just one home run this season. Four St. Mary's regulars are hitting under .200, including one who has yet to pick up a hit. One of those hitting under .200 is Troy Channing, who is hitting just .176. Channing was one of the nation's top hitters as a freshman with a .376 average and 20 home runs, then he backed that up with a .310, 15 home run year last year. Now a junior, Channing is too good of a hitter to continue to hit as poorly as he has so the Bruins need to make sure he doesn't get going on Saturday.
Sunday's showcase (2:30 pm PST) at Dodger Stadium will be the biggest game of the weekend as UCLA takes on their hated rivals USC on the same field that they defeated the Trojans, 6-1, last season in front of 14,588. Recently, the UCLA/USC rivalry hasn't been so competitive on the diamond with the Bruins winning the last five and 13 of the last 17 against the Trojans without dropping a series since 2005.
The Bruins will turn to Adam Plutko to continue their winning ways against the Trojans on Sunday and turning to Plutko has been a recipe for zeros this season. The freshman has allowed just one run in three starts this season with opposing batters hitting just .169 against him. Two doubles are the only extra base hits against the right-hander and he's coming off of a six shut out inning start a week ago.
On the flip side is USC, who will turn to a senior at Dodger Stadium in Logan Odom. The right-hander has been the Trojans' best starter this year, but at 0-2 with a 4.91 ERA that says more about the USC pitching than it does Odom, although he is coming off of a very strong start. Last week against Cal St. Fullerton, Odom went 7.2 innings and allowed just two runs, one earned, but still took the loss. Odom doesn't strike many guys outs, punching out just 10 in 18.1 innings this year, but opponents have hit just .206 against him so he's done well to keep guys from hitting him.
At the plate, USC has relied heavily on two guys in Kevin Roundtree and Joe DiPinto. Roundtree is leading the team with a .379 batting average, while DiPinto is right behind him with a .366 mark and team-high nine RBI. Those two are the only Trokans hitting over .300, but RIcky Oropesa remains a threat even if he's off to a slow start. The big left-hander is hitting only .250 this season without a home run, but this is a junior who hit .336 and averaged 16.5 home runs in his first two seasons at USC with some absolutely mammoth shots so the Bruins will have to be careful with him.
None of the teams that UCLA will play this weekend are powerhouses and neither is next weekend's opponents, Cal Poly, but the Bruins have the opportunity to right the ship and get ready to make a run at their first Pac-10 title since 2000. That begins this weekend with what is becoming the highest profile annual event in Southern California college baseball. Sunday's showcase will start with Georgia playing St. Mary's before UCLA and USC square off at 2:30 pm in front of thousands at Dodger Stadium. Tickets for Sunday are still available on Ticketmaster and will be available at Jackie Robinson Stadium on Friday and Saturday as well as at Chavez Ravine on Sunday.
If you can't make it out to the game on Sunday, it will be broadcast on FS Prime Ticket on delay at 7 pm PST. Friday's 6 pm PST game and Saturday's 2 pm PST game will both be 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 on my UCLA baseball twitter.