UCLA Looks To Continue Strong Pac-10 Start In The Palouse

UCLA is going to need a hot hitting Dean Espy in Pullman (Photo Credit: Official Site)

With another non-conference loss on Tuesday, UCLA's need to excel in conference just increases. A 14-10 record is not overly impressive and they have a RPI of 108, although it is misleading because projections have them jumping into the top 50 with just a .500 finish to the season. Thus far, the Bruins have been good in Pac-10 play, opening with a 5-1 record. To be fair though, UCLA has played their two conference series against USC and Washington, expected by most to be the two worst teams in the conference. Now they will get into the rough part of their conference slate beginning with three games at Washington St. this weekend.

The Cougars are a team that came into the season with high expectations. Head coach Donnie Marbut had established them as a solid team in the Pac-10, but with most of their team back they were expected to build off of an improve on recent Regional appearances. That hasn't been the case as they sit at just 12-12, largely due to their early Pac-10 struggles. A sweep at the hands of Cal started conference play and last week only an eight run eighth inning to come back from 8-2 down kept them from from being swept by Stanford. At 1-5 in conference, Washington St. will undoubtedly be playing with a sense of urgency and a 8-3 home record shows they can get the job done at Bailey-Brayton Field.

Once again, the focus for the Bruins is getting their offense going. Even in their Pac-10 games they haven't shown the offensive consistency and execution that they're going to need against the conference's better teams. The bar is so low that four runs against UC Riverside in Tuesday's loss is considered a solid offensive output. Washington St. hasn't been incredible, but they've been good offensively with Matt Argyropoulos's .377 batting average, Taylor Ard's .369 average and each of their four home runs leading the way.

As is always the case, Gerrit Cole will be charged with getting UCLA off on the right foot on Friday (5:30 pm PDT). The junior is coming off of a tremendous performance that showed off his growth as he shut down Washington without his best stuff on a night he was not his sharpest. Even so, Cole threw a complete game and allowed just one run to lower his ERA to 2.06, his batting average against to .176 and giving him a mind boggling 57 strike outs to just 10 walks on the year.

Trying to match Cole for Wazzu will be a junior left-hander who has made the transition from closer to starter this year with ease. Adam Conley was one of the conference's best closers, but as a starter he's been very strong as well, owning a 3.38 ERA and 46 strike outs to seven walks. Where Conley hasn't been great is letting opponents hit .278 against him, but it's still a good number. What Conley will have to do is bounce back from a bad start though after surrendering eight runs, six earned, in 5.1 innings against Stanford last year.

Trevor Bauer keeps pitching and pitching and he keeps impressing and impressing. He will hope to do so again on Saturday (1 pm PDT) and pick up his 27th career win, which would tie him with Alex Sanchez for the most in UCLA history. Bauer allowed three runs in eight innings last weekend, what would be considered a bad start for him in this sensational season of his, but he still holds a 5-1 record and 1.46 ERA. Most impressive are Bauer's strike out numbers, having struck out at least 10 batters in six of his seven starts this season and punching out 66 batters in his last five starts.

While this has been Bauer's showcase season, it was supposed to be Chad Arnold's as well only it hasn't gone according to plan. Arnold has battled injuries and has only made three starts this season, losing two of those and holding a 5.40 ERA. Arnold returned to Wazzu for his senior year and was supposed to lead the rotation, instead he's been a guy that has taxed the pitching staff. Even so, Arnold has deadly stuff when he's on and reports out of Pullman are that he's had a good last couple weeks, giving the Cougs hope he can turn in a dominant performance on Saturday.

Adam Plutko will be hoping that the baseball gods treat him better on Sunday (12 pm PDT) than they did last week. The freshman put together the best start of his young career, tossing seven shut out innings and striking out six while allowing just one hit. Unfortunately, the bullpen couldn't preserve the win for him, but the Bruins did get the win in the end. Now Plutko owns a 1.85 ERA and opponents are hitting just .201 against him, but his great season isn't reflected in his 2-3 record.

James Wise is a good pitcher with good stuff, but he hasn't shown it this season and UCLA will hope that he doesn't show it on Sunday. The senior is just 3-3 with a 5.17 ERA on the season because teams have had no problem hitting him, doing so at a .293 clip. Last week didn't help his numbers at all as he allowed eight runs, seven earned, in just 1.2 innings as the Cougars were absolutely destroyed by Stanford, 22-3. Wise was mediocre against the Bruins last year either, allowing four runs in just five innings, although the Cougars did get the win. 

UCLA doesn't have much margin for error anymore. Road series losses here and there can often be pushed aside and ignored. Going on the road is tough and that is doubly so when the road trip is to remote Pullman to play on an all-turf field. The Bruins can't afford to be forced to play catch up in the Pac-10 though with their games against the conference's two weaker teams already in their rearview mirror.

Saturday's contest will be televised on ROOT Sports (formerly FSN Northwest) and Friday and Sunday's games will be available on a premium webcast (it costs $10 for a month's subscription that would allow you to watch). I will have all game updates, information, links and thoughts on my UCLA baseball Twitter, while GameTracker will also be on the case. A road series victory against a RPI top 35 team would be a big boost for the Bruins so there is a lot of upside in this weekend's trip to the Palouse.

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