UCLA needs to go on a run in the next three weeks (Photo Credit: Scott Wu)
The rule of college baseball is win the series. Sweeps are nice, but winning the series is what matters. UCLA may have lost their 12-game win streak last weekend against Arizona St., but they got a Pac-12 series win against a very good Sun Devils team. It was good enough to move them up in the rankings and put them in a good spot in the conference.
At 2-1 in conference with one of the conference's power teams behind them, the Bruins are sitting pretty, but they are about to begin a three-week stretch that may decide their Pac-12 fate. It starts this weekend when they host Washington St. and is followed by a trip to Utah, before Oregon visits Jackie Robinson Stadium. With those three weekends followed by series against Arizona, Oregon St. and Stanford, two of which are on the road, the Bruins need to give themselves a bit of a cushion in the next three weeks if they really want to compete for the conference crowd.
Of course, Washington St. and Oregon especially are both good teams, but that's the Pac-12. Even if they don't match the upper echelon teams, they are still good ball clubs and the best of the conference take care of those teams. UCLA needs to take care of these next three weeks, beginning this weekend against Washington St.
The Cougars nabbed a game at Arizona last weekend and showed their ability to play with the best in the opening weekend of the season when they played three close games at Mississippi St. so this is hardly a team that is going to roll over just because they are on the road against a good team.
The series will get underway on Friday (6 pm PT) with Adam Plutko on the mound, who will try to avoid the bad inning he had a week ago. The right-hander allowed five runs in one inning, but followed that up by retiring 14 straight batters to keep the Bruins in the ballgame. Plutko's ERA jumped to 3.03 because of last week, but he is still averaging 10 strikeouts per nine innings and pitched fantastically against the Cougars a year ago when he allowed just one run on two hits in eight innings.
Washington St.'s starter, J.D. Leckenby didn't pitch against UCLA last year, but if he pitches the way he did last week and Plutko pitches the way he did last year against the Cougars, there won't be many runs scored. Down in Tucson against a very good Arizona offense, Leckenby shut the Wildcats down for 6.1 innings, shutting them out on five hits to get the win. The outing pushed his record to 3-2 on the year and his ERA down to 2.54 so the Bruins are in for a tough one.
Saturday's contest (2 pm PT) will see Nick Vander Tuig take the the ball for the Bruins. The right-hander did well last week to go out inning, which was key in the first game of a doubleheader, and he walked just one, but he surrendered four runs to take the loss. That he threw strikes and has made the transition from closer to starter without a problem, regularly throwing 100 pitches per start now, is a plus, but he gave up three home runs a week ago. He needs to keep the ball in the ballpark this weekend.
Opposite Vander Tuig will be a rarity in weekend rotations, a left-handed freshman. Joe Pistorese has five appearances and two starts this year so he's not a regular in the weekend rotation and last weekend he worked out of the bullpen, but he's getting the nod this weekend. The southpaw has worked just 13 innings in his five appearances so nobody expects him to go deep in the game, but he has a 1.38 ERA and is going up against the Bruins' left-handed heavy lineup.
Once again, the Bruins aren't sure who is going to pitch their series finale (1 pm PT). Zack Weiss is still dealing with shoulder soreness so Grant Watson could get the ball, which won't be much a problem because there wasn't a Tuesday game for him to pitch in this weekend.
Kevin Swannack will start for the Cougars, which isn't exactly good news for them. He's made a half-dozen starts this year and has an ERA to match it at 6.04. Last week was more of the same for the right-handers, surrendering six runs, five earned, in 4.1 innings. With almost as many walks as strikeouts this season and a .284 batting average against, this is a guy the Bruins can jump on.
UCLA is going to have to be weary of the top of the Washington St. lineup. They have four guys hitting .333 or better, including Derek Jones, who is hitting .364 with five homers, five doubles and three triples. If the Bruins make a mistake against him, they will get punished and Taylor Ard can do the same with a .333 average and four homers to his name.
That means UCLA will have to bust out the bats too. Jeff Gelalich continues to be one of the nation's top hitters, rankings 20th in the country in batting average and adding five homers to go along with four stolen bases. Kevin Williams has come up clutch several times and Trevor Brown and Cody Keefer are quietly having tremendous season. Toss in Eric Filia-Snyder, who got a look on Sunday and picked up four hits, and UCLA has the bats to get things done.
Unlike last weekend, the weather on Friday and Saturday should be fine, although there is a possibility of rain on Sunday. 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.