Tyler Heineman and the UCLA offense have picked it up of late (Photo Credit: Scott Wu)
As UCLA heads into the third week of the 2012 season, they are in a bit of a funny spot. It is the offense, not the pitching that appears to be the strength of the squad right now. The Bruins' current three-game winning streak came on the back of nine, eight and nine run performances and when their pitching has been stellar, it's been out of the bullpen more than the starting pitchers. Nobody would have guessed it, but the Bruins are more than happy about it as they head into this weekend's three-game set against Sacramento St. at Jackie Robinson Stadium with a 5-3 record on the year.
Coming off of a tough series loss to Maryland to open the season and then a stressful three games against Baylor with a trip to Georgia looming next week before the start of Pac-12 play, UCLA could use a bit of a down week. That's what they're going to get this week against the Hornets, who enter the weekend 4-4, but with a series loss to the same Cal St. Northridge team that the Bruins pasted. Toss in a preseason last place ranking in the WAC and there isn't any reason at all for UCLA to struggle through the weekend.
What this weekend could be is a chance to keep the offense churning. Jeff Gelalich earned Pac-12 Player of the Week honors after hitting .500 with three home runs and he backed that up with a pair of hits and three runs scored on Tuesday to push his average to .419 on the year, while he continues to lead the team in most offensive categories. Trevor Brown is also hot at the dish with multiple hits in five straight games to push his average to .407, while five other Bruins check in with a .333 average or better.
While the offense will be looking to stay hot, the starting pitchers will be looking to get hot, beginning with Adam Plutko on Friday night (6 pm PT). The sophomore got roughed up last week, although he did most of the roughing to himself. Plutko walked four and hit two, leading to 74 pitches in just 3.1 innings of an ugly start. This week he's going to be looking to get back to the form he showed as a freshman and in his first start of the year when he went seven scoreless innings.
Opposite Plutko will be fellow right-handed sophomore Hunter Greenwood, who is 1-1 with a 4.66 ERA on the young year. He had a tough freshman season as he took on an ERA over 10 in 10 appearances. A big part of that was walks, as he put 17 on in 20.2 innings. He's gotten better in that area this year, but hardly good in walking six in 9.2 innings. The way to put up a big number on Greenwood is clear.
Saturday (2 pm PT) will see Nick Vander Tuig continue his transition back to a starter. The Bruins' closer from a year ago had some problems in his first start as he went deeper into the game, but last week he went over the 100-pitch mark and still managed to limit Baylor to three runs in 5.2 innings. It wasn't exactly efficient, nor was it outstanding, but it was a step in the right direction and he'll look to take another step i that direction this week.
Vander Tuig is going to have to be on top of his game on Saturday too because the Hornets are countering with their best pitcher, Tanner Mendonca. Like on Friday, it is another match-up of sophomore right-handers, but Mendonca is off to a much better start than Greenwood. He has only allowed one earned run in 16 innings this season and opponents are hitting just .193 off of him. He doesn't get the job done by overpowering guys, with just five strikeouts on the year, but he pounds the zone and works efficiently. The Bruins bats are going to have to be ready to swing on Saturday.
Wrapping things up for the Bruins on Sunday (1 pm PT) is Zack Weiss, who also did not have his best of start last week. He struggled to command his breaking pitches for the second straight week and Baylor made him pay, tagging him for five runs in five innings. If Weiss is going to work from behind and struggle with his breaking ball as much as he did last week, he's going to run into trouble again, but the four strikeouts he had also showed how good that off speed stuff can be when it is on. It's just about turning the corner and getting back to where he was last year now.
For Sacramento St., they will have a third right-hander, but not third sophomore on the bump as Zach Morgan takes his turn. It hasn't been a good year for the junior as he's thrown just six innings in his two starts and has a ERA of 12.00 so the Bruins can expect to see a lot of the bullpen on Sunday and it's a good crop of relievers. Dallas Chadwick and R.J. Davis haven't allowed a run in a combined eight appearances this year and Tyler Hoelzen has been strong as well in his three chances, giving the Hornets something on the back end to try and slow down the UCLA offense.
What's been most impressive for the Bruins this season is how their bullpen has come together. Scott Griggs blew his first save and while he hasn't had great control since, he's had good enough control to combine with his nasty stuff to get saves. Ryan Deeter has emerged as a standout set-up man, Chase Brewer has been dependable and a pair of freshman, Grant Watson and David Berg, have really rounded things out. What was supposed to be a weakness for the Bruins don't look as much of one now.
With the offense clicking and the bullpen coming around, it is just time for the starting pitching to round into form. As much be said for the offense and bullpen too, it's still early so the starting pitching has a long ways to go, but if you had told John Savage in January that starting pitching would be the biggest issue, he would take that in a heartbeat.
This isn't a series that should be a problem for the Bruins. They have Georgia coming up, the Dodgertown Classic and then Pac-12 play, though, so there's plenty to gear up for. Tickets for the three games this weekend are $7 for adults, $5 for children and free for Wooden Club cardholders and students. As always, 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.