Cody Keefer is part of a UCLA offense that needs to turn it up this season (Photo Credit: Official Site)
When UCLA takes to the field on Friday to kick off their 2012 season, it will have been 257 since they last played a game and considering the way their 2011 season ended, that is a long 257 days. From sluggish start to roaring finishing and Pac-10 title and ending in a disappointing exit in a home Regional, the Bruins have had a lot of what ifs to think over since June 5. On Friday, they get to start working on putting those what ifs away, though, when Maryland visits Jackie Robinson Stadium for game one of a 56-game regular season that the Bruins hope will only be a prequel to a Regional, Super Regional and the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
It won't be an easy start for the Bruins. Cold-weather programs haven't had a ton of success in college baseball and Maryland is no exception, but they have a solid squad in College Park this season. Last season wasn't exactly a banner year for the Terrapins with their 5-25 ACC record, but it was a learning season and while they are not going to be near the top of the conference this year either, you can't beat them by rolling out the bats and balls anymore. In his second season, Erik Backich is working on turning around the program and has a ton of experience to go with the improved young talent that you would expect from a team led by one of the top recruiters on the east coast.
It is not as if UCLA is short on talent themselves. The question is whether the Bruins can get the most out of that talent, and most importantly, turn their inexperienced talent into contributing talent. A trio of sophomores will churn out good start after good start and Beau Amaral, Cody Regis, Jeff Gelalich, Cody Keefer and Pat Valaika should bounce back with big years to keep the offense ticking, but where is the bullpen help going to come from? Can the Bruins keep the bottom of their lineup from becoming a black hole? We will finally start getting some answers to those questions this weekend.
Adam Plutko is going to get his first ever Friday night start against the Terps (6 pm PT), not that the spotlight will be too bright for him. In his first collegiate appearance last season he threw six innings of two-hit, shutout ball and in his first postseason appearance he tossed 7.2 innings of one-hit ball. Plutko has no problem with pressure. With a 2.01 ERA and .193 batting average against last year, Plutko proved he can pitch with the best of them, but the key will be making sure he can get through seven innings. He's going to have to lessen the load on the bullpen on Fridays, which he proved he could do last year, but will have to do each and every time out this year.
Opposite Plutko will be Brady Kirkpatrick, who was the Terps' Sunday guy by the end of last year. The right-hander is the first of three that the Bruins will face this weekend, which is a boost for their left-handed heavy lineup. Kirkpatrick was 2-5 with a 5.71 ERA as a freshman in 2011, pitching very well out of the bullpen to start the year before tailing off some after being moved to the rotation. He rung up nearly a batter per inning so he can make guys miss, but early on in the season when pitchers aren't quite there and against a guy who gave away 5.5 walks per nine innings, the key will be to make him work.
Saturday's contest (2 pm PT) will feature Nick Vander Tuig making his first collegiate start. The sophomore worked as the Bruins' closer last season after missing his high school senior season with Tommy John surgery and is now moving back into a starting role for the first time since his junior year of high school. Vander Tuig was effective last year, picking up nine saves and pitching in some high pressure situations, but he did run into problems when he pitched deeper into games. Of course, he wasn't conditioned to go several innings last year, but now he is and he's ready to show why he was so highly thought of by the pros before he hurt his elbow.
The Terps will counter with experience in their senior right-hander David Carroll. The junior managed a 5-5 record and 4.70 ERA last year despite walking 4.5 batters per nine innings and opponents hitting .291 off of him. He didn't do such a great job working deep into games last year, lasting just 5.1 innings per start so this is a guy that the Bruins can get on and get into the bullpen against.
Wrapping up the weekend for the Bruins on Sunday (10 am PT) will be Zack Weiss. UCLA has had a ton of success on Sundays in the last two years with Rob Rasmussen in 2010 and Plutko last season and they expect Weiss to keep that up in 2012. He was the Bruins' midweek starter last year and added 13 relief appearances for a a 5-3 record and 2.86 ERA. As good as Weiss may have been during the year, the right-hander really showed off his potential with eight strong innings in the Bruins' elimination game of the Regionals. With the series possibly falling on his shoulders each Sunday, the Bruins will need Weiss at the top of his game.
Maryland will also be depending on a pitcher to be at the top of his game, who it isn't really fair to depend on. Brett Harman was the Terps' best pitcher in 2010, but he missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery and Sunday will be his first time out. He only went 5-8, but he managed a 4.50 ERA, but he did strike out nearly 10 per nine innings and kept walks down too. If healthy and back to form, Harman is the Terps' best pitcher, but can he really be healthy in start number one of his return?
If the Terps can't get good pitching they are going to to need the offense to get it going. Ryan Holland hit .282 and has a bit of pop, while Alfredo Rodriguez brings speed with 20 stolen bases a year ago, but the key could be what highly touted freshmen K.J Hockaday and Andrew Amaro bring to the table.
Maryland gives the UCLA pitchers a good match-up, but the question will be whether the Bruins can some quality innings from the bullpen and begin to establish some roles in relief. Scott Griggs will be the closer, but the Bruins will have to sort through Ryan Deeter, Zack Ortiz, Chase Brewer, Eric Jaffe and the rest down in the bullpen. There is also Grant Watson, who is the Bruins' only left-hander, but with him slated to start on Tuesday it will be interesting to see how UCLA uses him.
In all, this is a good test to start for the Bruins. If they play well, Maryland is a team UCLA should beat, but it is no walkover. Tickets for the three games this weekend at Jackie Robinson Stadium are $7 for adults, $5 for children and free for Wooden Club cardholders and students. For those looking to follow along, John Ramey and Tim Wilhelm will have the callonline, GameTracker will be going and I'll have updates, notes and observations all weekend on my UCLA baseball twitter.