UCLA Looks To Stay Hot As They Take On Stanford In Palo Alto

UCLA will don their road grays for their trip to Palo Alto (Photo Credit: Official Site)

So far, so good for UCLA in Pac-10 play. After a disappointing pre-conference run that saw them go from top three team nationally to fighting against the .500 mark, the Bruins needed to perform well in the Pac-10 and so far, that's exactly what they have done. With a 9-3 conference record, UCLA is just a half game behind Oregon St. for the top spot in the conference, but they've only played one of the top teams in the conference so far. That came last weekend when the Bruins lost the opener to Arizona, but came back to win the final two games and take the series. That series was at home though. This weekend, the 20-12 Bruins get a road test as the visit Stanford in a rare Thursday through Saturday three-game set thanks to Easter Sunday.

What makes this series even more important besides the obvious Pac-10 implications is what it could mean to both the Cardinal's and Bruins' Regional host chances. If the Bruins are to make a run at hosting a Regional, they will need a series win this weekend because the Cardinal are one of the teams also competing to host a Regional and having that head-to-head edge over Stanford would be a big plus. The Cardinal come into this weekend 17-12 overall, but a disappointing 3-6 overall after losing their last five conference games, including being swept by Oregon St. at home last weekend.

The Stanford offense has taken a nose dive in the five-game conference losing streak that they are currently on. They are averaging just 1.6 runs per game in those five losses and their runs per game average for the season is down to 5.5. Meanwhile, UCLA's offense is starting to come along with a 4.5 runs per game average in conference play. The Bruins are also coming off of their highest scoring game of the year after scoring 14 runs on Tuesday night against San Diego St. and have recent history on their side, having won four of their last five series against the Cardinal.

Thursday's series opener (5:30 pm PDT) will see two big, strong right-handers toe the rubber for each team as Gerrit Cole and Mark Appel get the starts for their respective teams. Cole is coming off a rough start in which he did well to make it through eight innings, but he allowed a season-high five earned runs in a loss to Arizona. The junior struck out 11 in the game, but he was hit harder than he usually is. Even so, Cole still holds a 2.22 ERA, .188 batting average again and 75 strike outs to just 11 walks on the season.

Appel has emerged as Stanford's ace as a sophomore, but he hasn't gotten much help from his offense so despite a 2.86 ERA, he is just 2-4. Appel has a mid-90's fastball and a good slider so it's not hard to see how he gets batters out. He also enters this weekend coming off of consecutive fantastic starts. A week ago, Appel allowed just one run in 6.2 innings of a hard luck loss and the week before he only allowed one unearned run in a complete game effort so the Bruins will be facing a pitcher with plenty of well-earned confidence.

Trevor Bauer usually throws on Saturday's, but the way he's pitching this season there is no reason to think he won't get the job done this Friday (5:30 pm PDT). In eight weeks of the 2011 season, Bauer has won Louisville Slugger National Pitcher of the Week honors four times. That includes last weekend's complete game four-hitter with 13 strike outs and just one walk against the Pac-10's top offense. The right-hander is now 7-1 with a 1.47 ERA, a .148 batting average against and 110 strike outs, the most in the nation.

Last season, Bauer went up against Jordan Pries in the middle game of the UCLA-Stanford series and once again, Pries will go up against Bauer. A year ago, the result went in favor of the Cardinal as Bauer allowed only one earned run, but seven total runs. Meanwhile, Pries surrendered four runs in a complete game effort that ended UCLA's 22-game win streak to start the year. This season, Pries is 4-3 with a 3.26 ERA, but coming off of a six run, six inning start a week ago.

Wrapping things up on Saturday (1 pm PDT) will once again be the Bruins' stellar freshman Adam Plutko. Despite still being without a win since his second start of the season, Plutko continues to pitch extraordinarily well. A week ago the defense betrayed Plutko as five errors led to five runs, although only two were earned. While Plutko's 2-3 record may be unimpressive, his 1.87 ERA most certainly is, as is his .193 batting average against.

Opposite Plutko will be a sophomore who hasn't been quite as successful this season. Dean McArdle allowed three runs a week ago and lasted just 2.1 innings, although short starts have become the norm for McArdle ths season. The right-hander is averaging under four innings per start this year, although his 5-2 record will open some eyes. McArdle comes into the weekend with a 4.13 ERA and no Stanford pitcher has allowed more doubles or home runs than him.

Getting a series win on the road against a RPI top 25 team would be huge for UCLA's resume and they have the chance to get it this weekend. There is also the Pac-10 title race to keep an eye on as the Bruins look to keep pace with an Oregon St. team that is expected to get a series win of their own this weekend in a home set against Washington St. To add to what is on the line this weekend, UCLA doesn't have a top notch road series win yet this year so for perception alone, there is plenty to play for at Sunken Diamond.

Stanford does have a webcast of all of their home games so you can watch this weekend's games, but it does require a subscription that costs $10. Luckily for the Bruin faithful not in the Bay Area, John Ramey is making the trek up north to call all three games. The game will also be available on GameTracker and you can get all the game updates, information, thoughts and links on my UCLA baseball twitter. Coming off of three straight losing weekends, UCLA needs to pick up a series win against a hot Cal Poly team so they can head into conference play with momentum.

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