UCLA Kicks Off Pac-10 Play Against Crosstown Rivals USC

Beau Amarai and the UCLA offense will try once again to put together consistent offense when they open Pac-10 play against USC this weekend (Photo Credit: Official Site)

A disappointing start to the season, UCLA gets to wipe the slate clean on Friday night when they start Pac-10 play against USC at Dedeaux Field. Unfortunately for the Bruins, their 2011 slate against the Trojans already has a red mark on it because USC got the better of them two weeks ago in the Dodgertown Classic, but that game didn't count in the conference standings whereas this weekend's three games will. As is always the case when the Bruins and Trojans meet, there will be an extra buzz in the stadium this weekend as UCLA tries to tries to right the ship and start a Pac-10 campaign that can end in the conference title they set out to win at the beginning of the season. On the flip side, USC is looking to get competitive again in a rivalry that has seen them go five years without winning a season series against the Bruins while also dropping 13 of their last 17 against their crosstown rivals.

Once again, the offense will be the key for the Bruins as it has been all season. UCLA hasn't scored six or more runs in consecutive games all season, but coming off of eight runs in their last game, the Bruins have the chance to do it if the bats come alive on Friday. The Bruins are still hitting a measly .243 for the season and it has shown on the scoreboard where they have scored three or fewer runs in nine of their 16 games. One thing that the UCLA batters have done a decent job of is draw walks, having picked up 54 free passes this season, but even that positive is mitigated by the fact that they have struck out 128 times. Against a USC pitching staff that walks their fair share of batters and don't strike out a ton though, the Bruins should have the chance to get the bats going.

When the Bruins and Trojans played on March 13, the USC offense was struggling to get things going, but ever since they have upped their offensive production. A big part of the uptick in offense is due to Ricky Oropesa getting locked in. A star hitter for both average and power for two seasons at USC, Oropesa was off to a poor start to the season, but in the last two weeks alone he's upped his batting average from .250 to .358. With Oropesa hitting, USC finally has another man to drive runs in besides Joe DiPinto and Alex Sherrod, who are batting .333 and .319 respectively and have more than 33% of the Trojans' RBI this season between them.

Junior right-handers will take to the mound for both UCLA and USC on Friday night (6 pm PDT) as Gerrit Cole and Andrew Triggs look to get their teams off on the right foot in the series. For Cole the question is less whether or not he can get the job done, but whether or not the offense can finally help him out. Cole has taken to the mound for 17.1 consecutive innings without a single run of support. Because last weekend's series was cut to a doubleheader on Monday due to rain, Cole only threw two innings against Cal Poly to keep him rested for this weekend. A 1.67 ERA is impressive, but most impressive for Cole this season is his improved command and efficiency as he's made a point of not trying to strike every batter out in order to keep his pitch count down. The approach has paid off to the tune of 40 strike outs to five walks and not taking Monday's predetermined two inning start into consideration, Cole has averaged almost 7.2 innings per start.

Like Cole, Triggs is a physically imposing right-hander, but he hasn't quite had the season that Cole has had or even the season that he was hoping to have. Triggs had a ERA under four last year and held opponents to a .257 batting average, but this year that ERA is up to 4.20 and teams are hitting .300 against him. While Triggs has never been a big strike out pitcher he has done well to keep from giving away free passes, but he's tailed off in that category as well. The junior has walked 15 already this season after walking 21 all of last season and 20 the season before. Triggs is coming off of a fantastic start though where he allowed just two runs, one earned, in a complete game effort against Pacific.

Saturday's contest (6 pm PDT) will see UCLA send the red hot Trevor Bauer to the mound. Few pitchers can claim to have been as dominant recently as Bauer, who has struck out 42 in his last three starts and has struck out at least 10 in four of his five starts this season. Bauer's recent strike out run began at Nebraska, where he struck out 17 in 10 innings. Two weeks ago, Bauer sat down 13 St. Mary's batters in 7.1 innings and on Monday 12 Cal Poly hitters went down on strikes in Bauer's seven innings. Such dominance has seen Bauer hop into third on UCLA's all-time strike out list and his ERA dip to 1.40 to go along with his 3-1 record.

If Bauer is to add a fourth win to his ledger this weekend he'll have to beat the Trojan pitcher that shut UCLA down two weeks ago. Logan Odom didn't strike many Bruins out, sitting only four down on strikes, but they couldn't hit a ball hard against the right-handed senior. By the time Odom exited the game he had thrown 7.1 scoreless innings and didn't seem to break a sweat doing so. Odom is coming off of a rough start last weekend though in which he allowed three runs on three hits in just 2.2 innings, but most concerning were the four walks Odom issued. The start dropped Odom's ERA to 3.81, still the best on the team, but his record stands at just 1-3.

Sunday's game (1 pm PDT) will be the only game this weekend played during the day, where UCLA starter Adam Plutko has made all of his starts and had plenty of succes as a freshman. Plutko may only be 2-2, but he hasn't allowed more than two runs in an appearance all season and has as many shutout appearances as he does two-run appearances with two of each. As a result, Plutko holds a 1.45 ERA this season and opponents are hitting just .205 off of him, but most impressive for a freshman might be his 30 strike outs to just eight walks.

Plutko's opponent on Sunday is not a freshman like him, but he is a junior transfer in his first season with the Trojans. After spending his freshman season at Florida St. and his sophomore season at a junior college, Austin Wood entered USC this season with plenty of fanfare as a fourth round pick in last year's MLB Draft who passed on signing with the Tampa Bay Rays. Wood hasn't quite put it all together with the Trojans though, averaging just around five innings per start with a 1-3 record and 5.06 ERA. The right-hander hasn't gotten much help from his defense though, having allowed 21 runs on the season, six of which are unearned.

One thing that UCLA experienced in their earlier match-up against USC was the Trojans' ability to shut games down in the bullpen. With Chad Smith and Matt Munson anchoring a strong bullpen, the Trojans can get the job done on the back end of games if their offense and starting pitcher gives them a chance to close a game out. Because of that it will be key that the Bruins get going early, something they've actually done a pretty good job of, scoring over 30% of their runs in the first inning this season.

For the Bruins and Trojans this weekend is much bigger than a regular UCLA vs. USC series, which are big to begin with. UCLA is still trying to get hot and make a run so they can be in position to host a Regional and they still hold Pac-10 title aspirations, the road to which begins on Friday. Meanwhile, USC looks like they will extend their streak without making a Regional to six this season, but with Chad Kreuter out they are trying to at least end the Bruins' recent dominance over them.

UCLA vs. USC series always bring out good crowds with fans from both teams filling the stands wherever the games are played. This weekend's series is being played at Dedeaux Field on the USC campus where tickets are $8. For those that can't make it out to the games, John Ramey and Tim Wilhelm will have the online radio call, while my UCLA baseball twitter will have all of the game updates, observations and links, as always.

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