Ryan Deeter and the UCLA bullpen will have to be strong (Photo Credit: Scott Wu)
It took playing a bad team and the wind blowing out, but UCLA finally got their offense going on Tuesday in a 19 run effort to defeat Cal St. Northridge and push their record to 2-2. Now they have to take a step up, though, and prove themselves in their first real test of the season. The Baylor Bears, with their undefeated record and tremendous pitching staff, are coming to Jackie Robinson Stadium for three games this weekend and the Bruins will have to play well to take the series.
Baylor was unranked to start the season, partly because of their recent history of inconsistency and underachievement, but that wasn't the case in their opening week of the season. Twice they came from behind to beat Oral Roberts in their season-opening series, then in midweek play they pasted TCU and Texas St. to push their record to a perfect 5-0. They're in the top 25 now and that is thans to their pitching, which has allowed just seven runs in their five games this season and only 4.4 hits per game.
Meanwhile, the Bruins have some work to do. They did get the offense going against Northridge, but those were exceptional circumstances. Nobody is going to really believe in their offense until they get it going against a good team and Baylor is certainly that good team with good pitching.
Maybe as concerning as the Bruins' offense, though, is their defense. It was supposed to be a strength for the team, but they were terrible on Sunday against Maryland and then again on Tuesday against Northridge. Runs against Baylor are going to be tough to come by so they can't afford to give runs away on defense and dig themselves a hole. UCLA will have to be sharp from the very first pitch to come away with a series win that they need to balance out the two games they dropped on opening weekend.
Adam Plutko is going to take to the mound on Friday night (6 pm PT) trying to replicate his performance from a week ago, even if it didn't net him a win. The sophomore struck out 10 and walked just one in seven scoreless innings against the Terps, but the offense couldn't give him more than a one-run cushion and the bullpen blew the lead in the ninth, robbing Plutko of the win. As a fly ball pitcher in the cool, heavy air at Jackie Robinson Stadium and against a Baylor team that doesn't have a ton of power, Plutko should have a chance at another great start this week.
Baylor's starter, Josh Turley, wasn't quite as strong as Plutko last week. He didn't allow any earned runs, but the left-hander allowed two unearned runs to come across and he exited in the fifth inning with two men on base. Turley was 4-5 with a 3.39 ERA last year so he is no slouch, but he's not the bonafide ace that the Bears would probably like on Friday nights.
The middle game of the series (2 pm PT) will feature a pair of right-handers who are working as starters for the first time this season in UCLA's Nick Vander Tuig and Baylor's Max Garner. The Bruins' sophomore looked strong early on in his start last week, but tired and surrendered four runs in the fifth to give him as many runs allowed, five, as innings pitched. That he tired isn't much of a surprise considering that it was his first start since his junior year of high school, but the Bruins will be looking for him to go a little deeper in this week's start.
Like Vander Tuig, Garner had never made a start before last week. The junior had made 41 relief appearances, though, so pressure wasn't a problem and he looked pretty strong early on, but as the game went on, he also tired. A run came across in the third and another in the fourth before he was pulled with a man in scoring position for 3.2 innings of two-run ball.
The series will come to a close on Sunday (1 pm PT) with Zack Weiss on the bump for the Bruins, who will certainly be hoping for more defensive help than he got last weekend. The right-hander allowed three runs, all unearned, in five innings a week ago and took a hard luck loss because of it. Weiss was hardly perfect on the afternoon as he struggled to locate his breaking ball, but he wasn't given any help. With some help, and a better breaking ball, Weiss could look like the sub-3.00 ERA pitcher he was as a freshman in 2011.
Opposite Weiss will be the second left-hander starter of the weekend for the Bears, Brad Kuntz. The sophomore lasted longest of the Baylor starters last weekend, managing five innings against Oral Roberts, striking out six and only allowing one run. Like Garner, Kuntz did not work as a starter before last weekend, making just one start last season, so he can be had later in games.
Where the Bears were really outstanding in their first week was in the bullpen. Tyler Bremer, Trent Blank, Kolt Browder and Miles Landry were all exceptional in relief and made it so the starting pitchers' inability to go deep into games did not matter so much. This is in stark contrast to the Bruins' bullpen, which had more struggles than successes in their first week, but will need to be strong to match what the Bears have in relief and that means closer Scott Griggs needs to be solid in the ninth.
Offensively, Max Muncy is the big bat for the Bears. The first baseman hit .322 with nine home runs in 2011 and is hitting .444 with two extra base hits in this young season, making him a real threat in the middle of the Baylor lineup. Josh Ludy isn't too shabby either, batting in the cleanup spot a year after .278 and hitting .500 with eight RBI in Baylor's first five games this season. The Bears don't have a lot of power, but they find ways on base and challenge pitchers from the top to the bottom of the lineup.
If the Bruins are going to get a series win, they're going to need production from their offense too. That starts with Cody Regis, who is supposed to be the power bat in the lineup. He has gotten off to a rough start with a .083 average and no extra base hits, which the Bruins can't afford against a good team. On the other end of the spectrum is Cody Keefer, who is hitting .415 with a .500 on-base percentage, but even there all is not good. Keefer has a team-leading six strikeouts, a sign of a problem that the entire team has as strikeouts have begun to pile up.
With a series loss to Maryland already on their resume, the Bruins need a series win against a quality non-conference to even things out. A series win over Baylor, who plays in a good Big XII, will also pay dividends later on in the season when it helps boosts UCLA's RPI. Toss in the need to redeem themselves and prove that they are indeed a top team after last week's stumble and there is plenty on the line for the Bruins this weekend.
This is a big opportunity for the Bruins to prove that they are indeed the top 15 team that they were thought to be in the preseason so head on out to Jackie Robinson Stadium and see if UCLA can grab a pair of important wins. Tickets for the three games this weekendare $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 call online, GameTracker will be going and I'll have updates, notes and observations all weekend on my UCLA baseball twitter.