Right now, you would be hard-pressed to find a team in the country playing better than UCLA. They are winners of 11 straight and they haven't been rolling over patsies. They took down then-top 25 Baylor and then-#9 Georgia to move up to #9 themselves in the newest rankings. They backed that up with a win over rivals USC so they are nothing short of red hot, but now they start a new challenge -- defending their conference title.
Last season, UCLA claimed their first outright conference title since 1986 and now they have to go about defending it. Fittingly, they will kick off their 2012 conference campaign against the team they finished it against in 2011, #11 Arizona St. Last year's series proved to be the won the won the Bruins the conference title, bucking five years of history that saw the Sun Devils dominate the Bruins. UCLA finally broke through, though, winning the series last year to get the monkey off their backs and now they have a hot streak to boot.
The one thing that could stop UCLA this weekend is Mother Nature. As the Bruins get ready to take on the Sun Devils this weekend, there is a very real possibility that the two teams don't get to complete the series. The forecast is calling for rain on Saturday and Sunday, putting this weekend's series in doubt and while Cal St. Fullerton is playing a doubleheader on Friday to give them a better chance of getting all three games in this weekend, UCLA is not. This one is now on Mother Nature.
Once again, Adam Plutko will be on the mound for the Bruins on Friday (6 pm PT), but this time he wil be doing it coming off of a nearly flawless start. The sophomore threw a complete game shutout, striking out 11 and allowing just five hits to beat Georgia. Most encouraging, Plutko didn't walk anyone, which was a big change after walking four in each of his prior two starts. Now he'll try to repeat his last start and keep the 127 pitches he threw last week from affecting him this week as he looks to lower his team-best 2.13 ERA.
Meanwhile, Arizona St. has an ace of their own to throw on Friday night in Brady Rodgers. Like Plutko, Rodgers doesn't have a huge arm, but he has good run on his fastball and can command three pitches, giving him options in any count. He's also coming off of a good run of his own, giving up two runs in nine innings last week to bring an end to a run of 22 scoreless innings. Rodgers can match Plutko pitch for pitch no matter how good Plutko is, making this one of the premier pitching match-ups in the country this weekend.
If there is a Saturday game (2 pm PT), it will be a battle of right-handed sophomores as Nick Vander Tuig takes the ball for UCLA and Trevor Williams gets it for Arizona St. For the Bruins' hurler, the key is throwing strikes. He walked three last week in six innings of four-run ball and regularly found himself behind in the count. The start pushed his ERA to a disappointing 4.01 on the year, but he's also flashed the ability to dominate opponents. The Bruins just aren't sure what they are going to get.
Vander Tuig is going to have to be on his game if the Bruins are going to win on Saturday because he's going to be opposed by Trevor Williams, who has been nothing short of fantastic this year. Williams is 4-0 on the year with a 1.08 ERA and he's not blowing guys away. The right-hander has struck out just 11 in 25 innings, but he has also only walked five and given up two extra base hits. Williams is going to throw strikes so the Bruins are going to have to bring their bats.
The Bruins have announced a starter for Sunday, in part because of the uncertainty of whether there will be a third game due to the rain, but if there is a game, the Sun Devils are going with Adam McCreery. The left-handed freshman has made just two appearances this season, both starts, and has gone a total of eight innings so he's not exactly rolling deep into games, but he's struck out 10 and he hasn't allowed a run.
Stopping the Sun Devils attack will be tough for the Bruins, but that's not unusual. Arizona St. always has a good offense and their hitting .336 as a team is right along the norm for them, even if they're breaking in a lot of new guys. Abe Ruiz has been their big power bat with four home runs, but it is Joey DiMichele and Devon Marrero who really lead the charge. The former is leading the team with a .474 batting average, 21 RBI and 20 runs, while the latter is hitting .354 and is the heart and soul of the team.
Of course, UCLA finally has a potent offense of their own again. Jeff Gelalich is leading the way with a .483 average, three home runs and 18 runs scored, but his exploits have caused Trevor Brown and Kevin Williams to fly under the radar. Brown is leading the team with 15 RBI to go with a .370 average, while Williams is hitting .421 and just hit his first career home run on Tuesday. Now the Bruins are averaging 6.6 runs per game, which isn't quite the same as the Sun Devils' eight runs per game, but they also do not have the advantage of a ballpark where the ball flies like ASU does.
This is the Bruins' chance to not just keep the winning streak going, but to get off to a great start to defending their conference title. The series starts on Friday at 6 pm PT and continues on Saturday at 2 pm PT and finishes on Sunday at 1 pm PT. Tickets for the series at Jackie Robinson Stadium are $7 for adults, $5 for kids and free for students and Wooden Club card holders. If you can't make it, John Ramey and Tim Wilhelm will have the call online, GameTracker will be going and make sure to check my UCLA baseball twitter not only for game updates, notes and observations, but weather updates and game status.