After losing a pair of games to San Jose St. last weekend, UCLA found themselves in a situation they would have never expected. First, they lost two home games to San Jose St. Second, they lost those games with Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer pitching. Third, the offense managed just 10 hits in both games combined. The Bruins were facing their first bit of adversity in a season with extremely high expectations, but they responded by beating the Spartans in the final game of the series then taking down San Diego St. 5-2 on Tuesday.
This weekend, UCLA will play their second, third and fourth road games of the season when they head to Nebraska for three games at Haymarket Park. Of course, it is Nebraska in March so they will also have to deal with temperatures that will top out in the 40's, but considering that snow in March isn't unheard of the cold temps aren't too bad. Last season, the Huskers made the trip to LA for a series and the Bruins took all three games and Nebraska went on to a .500 record for the season. This season, the Cornhuskers are 6-3 to UCLA's 6-2, but neither team has faced as tough of a team as they're going to face this weekend.
The UCLA pitchers have been stellar this season, compiling a 1.62 ERA with 10 strikeouts per nine innings and a strikeout to walk ratio better than four to one. This weekend is going to challenge the Bruin pitchers though because the Cornhuskers have been on fire at the plate. Nine games in, Nebraska has a .340 team batting average and are averaging over eight runs per game.
For the Bruins the big question will be what they do with the bats. Cole and Bauer were bested last weekend, but odds are that they get back to form this weekend and Adam Plutko has been fantastic on Sundays. UCLA's problem is really at the plate where they are averaging five runs a game and hitting .276. Now the struggling UCLA bats will have to go on the road and play in the cold, making their task even tougher.
When the series kicks off on Friday (11:30 am PST), Cole will be on the mound for UCLA trying to rebound from last weekend's rough start. Cole started his outing last weekend with a quick nine pitch first inning on Friday, then the rain caused the game to be suspended so Cole had to come back and start in the second inning on Sunday. Things were going great until the sixth inning when three hits, two hit by pitches, a walk and an overthrow of first base by Cole resulted in five runs. Now 1-1 on the year, Cole will look to replicate his start against the Cornhuskers last season when he allowed only one run on two hits and struck out nine. Opposing Cole will be an imposing 6'8'' sophomore Tom Lemke. The right-hander had an up and down freshman season that finished with a 5-6 record and 5.34 ERA and has had a similar start to the 2011 season with a 1-0 record and 6.52 ERA. Last year the Bruins got to Lemke, putting up four runs in just 1.2 innings before getting the hook.
Saturday's game two (12 pm PST) will match UCLA's Bauer against Nebraska's John Keller. Like Cole, Bauer also took a loss last weekend to drop to 1-1 in a start that he made it 6.2 innings, but gave up five runs, four of which were earned, and only struck out six. One of the hallmarks of Bauer's UCLA career though has been his ability to bounce back from a rough start and he'll try to do so again on Saturday by also replicating his start against the Cornhuskers last year when he struck out 10 in 6.2 innings of one run ball. Bauer might need a great start like that if he's going to beat Keller who is off to a great start to his collegiate career. In two starts, Keller has yet to allow a run and has limited opponents to a .125 batting average, but he has walked as many as he's struck out so patience will be the key for the Bruins.
When the series wraps up on Sunday (11 am PST), the Bruins will send Plutko to the hill. The freshman has had no problems getting outs in his two starts this season, tossing six scoreless in his debut before a seven inning, one run effort last weekend. The right-hander doesn't blow you away with power like Cole or throw a dozen pitches that dart in every imaginable direction like Bauer, but he throws his fastball, change up and breaking ball where he wants it in any count he wants. His poise has been tremendous in the early going and while he hasn't faced much trouble because he's been so sharp, when he has he's shown no problems handling pressure and tough situations. Nebraska haven't decided who they're going to go with on because their two other starters so far this season have been poor with ERA's of 7.00 and 10.38 leaving them without an attractive option.
One aspect of the series that will be intriguing to watch is the battle of the base paths where both teams have been active. Last season, Nebraska didn't attempt to steal many bags, but they've attempted to steal 23 already this season only to be thrown out eight times. If they try to get the running game going this weekend they are going to have to do it against a Bruin team that has done a great job controlling the running game. This season, the Bruins have thrown out half of those who have tried to steal on them and picked off three. Meanwhile, UCLA has been incredibly dangerous on the base paths themselves, swiping 21 bags on 26 attempts.
For the Cornhuskers, this season is their bounce back season. It has been 13 years since the program had consecutive sub-30 win seasons and after last year's 27-27 mark they are looking to rebound. A .500 record last year wasn't too bad considering the extreme youth that Nebraska played, but now all that youth is a year older and back on the field for the Cornhuskers, making them a team most expect to be back in a Regional this season. This weekend marks the chance for Nebraska to make a statement as a program that has come back from their down season and last year's 19-7 home record proved they can play well at home.
For those of you looking to follow along this weekend, GameTracker will have it and you can get all the updates, along with links and other information on my UCLA baseball twitter. John Ramey and Co. will not be in Lincoln to provide audio, but the Huskers do have streaming video for a subscription. If there is a stream floating around come first pitch, I will make sure it is linked in the game thread that we'll have up. Let's see if the Bruins can get the job done on the road and prove that last weekend was a mere hiccup and not anything to worry about.