Scott Griggs and the UCLA bullpen will head out on the road for the first time (Photo Credit: Scott Wu)
The season did not begin as planned for UCLA. Maryland, traditionally one of the ACC's worst teams, came out to LA and took two of three from the Bruins. Everything that went wrong for UCLA in 2011 went wrong for them in that first weekend, but ever since, the Bruins have looked like a completely different team. They are hitting over .300 as a team on the year and are scoring 6.8 runs per game, while the bullpen has stepped up to get the pitching staff's ERA down to 3.36 and batting average against to .219. The result is a 9-3 record and the Bruins riding a seven-game win streak.
As good as UCLA has been, they haven't really been tested away from the friendly confines of Jackie Robinson Stadium. Only one of their 12 games has been away from home and that was just a quick jaunt up the 405 to a poor Cal St. Northridge squad. The true mark of a really good team is what they do away from home, as evidenced by the Bruins' 14-12 mark on the road last year as opposed to 15-4 records they put up on the road in their College World Series year of 2010.
This weekend, the Bruins will finally get that road test and it will be a really tough test at that. #16 UCLA will be at #8 Georgia, who are 10-2 on the year and boast one of the nation's best pitching staffs. Taking on Baylor in week two was the Bruins' first big test of the year and they acquitted themselves well, winning the final two games of the series to start their win streak, but this is a different animal. This will undoubtedly be the Bruins' biggest test of the non-conference and a series that, if UCLA wins, they can hang their hats on come postseason time.
Kicking off the weekend will a Friday match-up (3:30 pm PT) between two sophomore standouts, UCLA's Adam Plutko and Georgia's Alex Wood. Plutko bounced back from a rough outing two weeks ago with a six inning start last week in which he surrendered two runs, one earned. It wasn't all good, though, as Plutko walked four to go along with his nine strikeouts. His season numbers still look good at 1-1 with a 3.31 ERA, but if he walks four like he has in each of the last two weeks, he could find himself in trouble this weekend.
Plutko will need to be good too because Alex Wood is very good. The left-hander is 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA and was at his best a week ago, throwing eight shutout innings and allowing just two hits while striking out 14. The start earned him SEC Pitcher of the Week honors and left him with still just one walk on the season. Wood is going to pound the strike zone with a 93-94 mph fastball and will put the Bruins away with his slider if he gets ahead so they will be challenged, and then some.
In Saturday's game (11 am PT), UCLA will be hoping to see the same Nick Vander Tuig they saw last week. The right-hander worked eight innings and allowed just one unearned run, striking out seven to improve to 2-0 on the year. He lowered his ERA to 3.38 and showed that he could be the outstanding starter that the Bruins hoped he would be when he transitioned from closer to starter. The trick now will be doing it week in, week out.
Opposite Vander Tuig will be Michael Palazzone, the Bulldogs' senior who is still trying to find his groove. Palazzone was Georgia's Friday night starter a year ago, but Wood took that spot this year and now Palazzone is trying to figure things out on Saturdays. The senior has a 3.60 ERA and oppoents are hitting just .232 off of him, but he's only averaging five innings per start. Last week he gave up two runs on five hits in just four innings. Nobody would call Palazzone a liability because he's keeping the Bulldogs in games, but he's certainly shaky.
As always, Zack Weiss will wrap things up for the Bruins on Sunday (10 am PT) and he'll be doing it coming off of his best start of the season. Weiss worked seven innings and allowed just two runs on four hits to pick up the win and improve to 1-1 on the year. The sophomore's ERA is still up at 3.71, though, mostly because he has almost as many walks (eight) as strikeouts (nine).
Georgia will counter with one of their most pleasant surprises, Taylor Ricks. The redshirt freshman is 2-1 with a 3.00 ERA and in his first two starts of the year he didn't allowed a run across. His hot start came to a halt last weekend, though when Western Illinois tagged him for four runs in just two innings. This weekend will be the first time that he plays a big-time team and also the first time he has had to handle adversity.
If the Bulldog starters cannot get the job done, their bullpen should be able to. Four relievers have made at least three appearances without a run across and their seven other pitchers will at least three appearances have ERA's of 3.38 or better. The standout Georgia staff is made up as much of their bullpen as it is their starters and that could be trouble for the Bruins.
Luckily for UCLA, the Bulldogs have really struggled at the plate. Despite not playing anyone of note yet, Georgia are have a team batting average of .274 and don't have much power to go with it, hitting just four homers and slugging just .370. As a result, the Bulldogs are averaging only five runs per game, but they are not without their threats. Curt Powell is hitting nearly .400 and Kyle Farmer leads the squad with 10 RBI, but it's not a particularly deep lineup so the Bruins can run off a string of outs against the bottom of the order.
The biggest question for the Bruins this weekend, besides how they handle one of the nation's best pitching staffs, is how the bullpen handles the road. The relievers were supposed to be the shakiest part of the UCLA team, but they've been nothing of the sort. UCLA's bullpen has been very dependable, but they are still an inexperienced bunch and they'll be away in front of several thousand fans for the first time this weekend.
If the Bruins can handle the road this weekend, they can shoot up the rankings and put themselves in great position for Pac-12 play, which starts next weekend against Arizona St. Before they can think about the Sun Devils, though, they need to deal with the Bulldogs. That means Jeff Gelalich establishing himself as a hitter to fear in the middle of the lineup against a really good team, Beau Amaral setting the table at the top and the rest of the lineup doing the little things to manufacture runs that will be tough to come by.
This weekend is the Bruins' big test and a chance to find out if UCLA is good or if they are really, really good. The series gets underway on Friday and the Bulldogs will have video of it online. Saturday's contest will be on Comcast/Charter Sports Southeast for those of you who get it and there is audio of Sunday's series final. If you're just trying to follow along, you can do so on GameTracker or get live game updates, news and more on my UCLA baseball Twitter.