UCLA finishes off the season with a trip to ASU and the conference title still within reach (Photo Credit: Scott Wu)
It's the final weekend of the regular season and UCLA is heading to the desert with the Pac-10 title still up for grabs. The Bruins sit in a tie with Arizona St., one game behind Oregon St. for first place in the conference with the Bruins set to do battle with the Sun Devils this weekend and the Beavers scheduled for a rivalry series against Oregon. Because Oregon St. does have the tiebreaker over both the Bruins and Sun Devils, they are undoubtedly the favorites to win the conference, but it is far from assured.
For the Bruins, this weekend isn't just about winning the Pac-10. It is about trying to get over the hump and best a team that has had their number in recent years, although in fairness, they've had the number of just about every Pac-10 team in recent years. It is also a chance for UCLA to bolster their resume for the postseason before the field is announced on Monday. While it is nearly impossible for UCLA to host a Regional, a good resume will give them a chance to host a Super Regional if the team they face there also pulled an upset over the number one seed.
Arizona St. is in a bit of a tenuous situation themselves. Their program was banned from the postseason by the NCAA, along with other penalties, for infractions committed by the prior coaching staff. The school's appeal is still pending though, meaning that the Sun Devils are eligible for the postseason until a decision on their appeal is reached. With it looking unlikely that the NCAA rules on their appeal before Monday, it looks as if the Sun Devils will be a part of this year's postseason and as a Regional host at that, with a national seed also still realistic.
If UCLA is to get a tough series win in Tempe, it will have to start with a good performance on Friday (6:30 pm PDT). Getting wins on Friday has been tough for the Bruins. They've won just one of their last six Friday night games and while some of that was because Gerrit Cole struggled for a few weeks, that wasn't the case in last Friday night's loss. Cole threw seven innings and allowed just one run, but the Bruins were shut out. Cole now sits at 5-7 on the year with a 3.27 ERA, but he did have success against the Sun Devils last year. In seven innings he struck out nine and allowed just two runs.
Opposite Cole will be Brady Rogers, who worked out of the bullpen against the Bruins last season. The right-hander allowed three hits in 3.1 innings of relief against UCLA, but didn't give up a run. This season the sophomore is 8-3 with a 2.78 ERA. He's shown exceptional command, walking just seven and striking out 64 in 77.2 innings of work. He enters the game coming off of a complete game shutout of Washington too so he's pitching well and with command like his, the Bruins will have to be aggressive because he won't give anything away.
If the Bruins could just get a Friday win, they would feel great going into Saturday (6:30 pm PDT) with Trevor Bauer on the mound. The junior made his case for National Pitcher of the Year yet again last week with his seventh consecutive complete game in which he surrendered just one run. He already has UCLA's all-time single season strikeout record with 175, a number he just keeps pushing higher with each start and could challenge Tim Linceum's Pac-10 record of 202. He enters the weekend with a 11-2 record and 1.37 ERA, but ASU did get to him last year, tagging him for six runs, four earned.
It will be a fellow right-handed junior charged with trying to beat Bauer as the Sun Devils turn to Kramer Champlin, who owns a 8-2 record and 2.79 ERA this season. Most impressive though might be that Champlin averages about seven innings per start, tossing three complete games this year and regularly going deep into games. He is coming off of one of those complete game, going the distance and surrendering just six hits against Washington a week ago. A transfer from Western Nevada, Champlin has not faced the Bruins before.
Wrapping up the series for the Bruins on Sunday (12:30 pm PDT) is the freshman who just continues to get better. Adam Plutko has pitched his best during the season's stretch run and is coming off of yet another strong start in which he allowed just two runs on three hits in eight innings of work against Cal last week. He holds a 6-3 record and 1.70 ERA in his freshman season with a .184 batting average against and has allowed just 13 extra-base hits in 95.1 innings this season.
Arizona St. has yet to announce a starter for Sunday's game, but with the way their bullpen works, they might not need much out of their starter. Trevor Williams has a 2.14 ERA and .207 batting average against in 28 appearances and Alex Blackford's numbers are almost as good in 57.2 innings this year. That bullpen will make things tough on the Bruins and might magnify the work of the UCLA bullpen, which will have to do without Mitchell Beacom, who has a stress fracture in his foot.
Offensively, the Sun Devils are a scary team. They might not be as amazing as past Arizona St. offenses, but they're still pretty damn good. Joey DiMichele leads the way with a .382 batting average, seven home runs and .675 slugging percentage, while six other sun Devils join him with batting averages above .300. Add in two more with batting averages below .300, but who each have five home runs and the lineup can get the job done.
Lucky for UCLA fans, John Ramey will be in the desert calling all three games live online. Of course, GameTracker will have the games and as is always the case, my UCLA baseball twitter has all the game updates, news, notes, links and thoughts. It's the final weekend of regular season play leading up to Selection Monday, when the Bruins will learn their postseason fate, possibly as Pac-10 champions.