The UCLA offense will need to rediscover some timely hitting for the stretch run (Photo Credit: Official Site)
Five games up, two games down and now a break from conference play. UCLA was riding high after sweeping Oregon last weekend to stretch their winning streak to a season-long five games. They were up to third in the Pac-10, two games ahead of fourth-place Cal and just a game and a half behind conference leaders, Oregon St. That wave of momentum that the Bruins were riding came to a halt in midweek action though. Losses to Long Beach St. and UC Santa Barbara knocked the Bruins down and now they have to try to build up that momentum again when Cal St. Bakersfield visits Westwood this weekend for a non-conference series.
Despite having just started their baseball program three years ago, the Roadrunners have built a respectable program quickly under the leadership of head coach Bill Kernen. It isn't much of a surprise that Kernen is having succes after he made the transition from Division II to Division I with Cal St. Northridge and had them on the cusp of the College World Series just a few years later. This Cal St. Bakersfield team got off to a flying start, sweeping Washington early and going 4-0 in a tournament that included Arizona St. and Kansas. They sit at 26-19, but that's after losing 11 of their last 13 so it's easy to see how good they were and also how much they're struggling.
For UCLA, this weekend will be about righting the ship before returning to conference play. While they are pretty comfortably in the postseason and without a chance of hosting it would be easy to say that they have little left to play for. There really isn't much of a difference between a two-seed and a three-seed in a Regional and that's what the Bruins will get. There's still plenty to play for though. If UCLA wins their Regional and their opponent in the Super Regionals also pulled an upset over the one-seed, the Bruins will need these wins and a strong resume so that they can host the Super Regionals. That's what's on the line, as well as the chance to build momentum for a stretch run in which they still can win the Pac-10 title.
When the series gets underway on Friday night (6 pm PDT), it will once again be with Gerrit Cole on the mound for UCLA. The junior had three poor starts and was in the biggest rut of his collegiate career, but he busted out of that last weekend up at Oregon with 7.1 innings of six hit, one run ball to pick up the win. He now has a 5-5 record, 3.25 ERA and has the opportunity to get back to his dominant self for the stretch run. How he handles a patient Bakersfield lineup will be interesting this weekend, as will his ability to establish himself on the inner half of the plate which he has struggled with.
Opposite Cole will be Mike McCarthy, a redshirt senior, who is coming off of an unlucky start last weekend. McCarthy allowed just one earned run in seven innings against Loyola Marymount, but four unearned runs did the damage and he took the loss. Like Cole, McCarthy sits at 5-5 on the year, but he's done it with a 1.81 ERA thanks to a .228 batting average against and strikeout to walk ratio of almost 4:1. The Bruins will be in for a tough one against McCarthy, but when he does get knocked around it is usually later on in games so UCLA needs to be patient and look to wear McCarthy down.
Saturday (2 pm PDT) has become one of the most entertaining days anywhere in the country at UCLA and that's thanks to Trevor Bauer, who has been nothing short of sensation. A 9-2 record and 1.43 ERA sells the eight-hander short. His five consecutive complete games and NCAA best 154 strikeouts (the next closest has 112) better shows just how good Bauer has been. He was that good a week ago, allowing just one run in his nine innings and striking out 12 to beat Oregon.
Martin Medina will be charged with trying to beat Bauer, an unenviable task. Bauer has been beaten just once since February 27 and the opposing pitcher had to throw a no-hitter to do it. Medina will be making his first start of the season after working out of the bullpen all year. The right-hander went 2-2 with a 4.15 ERA in relief this season and only averaged two innings per appearance so he hasn't been throwing many innings this year. That means UCLA will need to wear him down and make him work then jump when he begins to tire.
For all the hype of Cole and Bauer, UCLA has been getting incredible pitching on Sunday (1 pm PDT) as well thanks to Adam Plutko. The freshman was at his finest last week, earning Pac-10 Pitcher of the Week honors for a complete game, two-hitter at Oregon in which he was strong to the end, retiring the last nine batters of the game. He now sits at 4-3 with a 1.59 ERA and .194 batting average against so his dominance last week was not a fluke. The question though will be how he responds after throwing 126 pitches last week.
UCLA has had some trouble with left-handed pitchers at times this season, but they'll have to beat one on Sunday. Jonathan Montoya will get the nod for the Roadrunners and with 13 starts under his belt this season, the junior is undoubtedly experienced. Montoya is 7-4 with a 3.64 ERA on the year and while he holds opponents to a .236 batting average against, he has been bitten by extra base hits and walks so he can be had. After going 6.1 innings a week ago and giving up seven runs, four earned, he's not coming into this weekend flying either.
The key for the Bruins will not be what happens on the mound though. It will be what happens behind the pitchers and at the plate. Wednesday's loss to Santa Barbara was as close to a defensive disaster as one will see with UCLA committing five errors, but leaving the bases loaded twice without a man across did little to help either. Unfortunately for the Bruins, defensive miscues and untimely hitting hasn't been the rarest of sights this season and with the season winding down they are running out fo time to get everything clicking on a more consistent basis.
With partly cloudy skies and temperatures around 70 this weekend it makes for a great time to head out to the ballpark. Tickets to a game are $7 for adults, $5 for children and free for Wooden Club cardholders. For those of you looking to follow along this weekend, GameTracker will have it and you can get all the in-game updates, along with links and other information on my UCLA baseball twitter. John Ramey and Tim Wilhelm are also back in the booth this weekend and giving you the play by play online all weekend.