The bottom of the UCLA lineup will have to get it going this weekend (Photo Credit: Scott Wu)
Is UCLA at Arizona the series of the year in the Pac-12? It very well might be. At the beginning of the season, it was assumed that Stanford against somebody else, be it UCLA, Arizona, Oregon St. or Oregon, would be the series to keep an eye on, but the Wildcats' sweep of the Cardinal two weeks ago changed things. Stanford are now 4-5 in the conference and 3.5 games begins first-place Arizona. Meanwhile, the Bruins, who are 8-0 away from Jackie Robinson Stadium this season, are in Tucson this weekend and trail the Wildcats by just a game in the conference.
This weekend could have been a chance for the Bruins to move into first place all by themselves with just a series win, but a series loss to Oregon last weekend ruined that (the Ducks are in another huge series this weekend against the Cardinal). They're a game out and need a series sweep to move into first place all alone, but a series win in Tucson will be more than enough. Besides the obvious RPI boost that comes with beating a fellow RPI top 20 team and the difficulty of winning away against such a tough team, a series win will have the Bruins tied for first and holding the tiebreaker over the Wildcats. Oh, and this could end up being the decider in who is hosting a Regional or getting a national seed. No big deal.
If the Bruins are to grab two of three from the Wildcats this weekend, they are going to need excellent pitching. Arizona comes into the weekend as the best offensive team in the country, toting a .331 team average, and Joey Rickard, Alex Mejia, Robert Refsnyder and Seth Mejias-Brean are the Pac-12's four top hitters. The Wildcats can hit with the best of them and the UCLA starting pitchers got rocked last weekend. That is in addition to the scary number of walks they have been handing out this season. If they do that this weekend they will pay.
Adam Plutko will be the first Bruin pitcher with the chance to turn things around when he starts on Friday night (6 pm PT). The sophomore has been UCLA's best starting pitcher this season and his numbers look strong, with a 4-2 record and 3.26 ERA, but nobody will claim he's been near his best. He got roughed up last weekend to the tune of five runs in 4.1 innings and John Savage put it simply after the game that, "He's got to get better." That starts with locating, which he hasn't done consistently all season, but we know that when he's at his best, he's as good as anyone. Against Arizona, he'll have to be at his best, which he wasn't against Arizona last season when he allowed five runs (two earned) in six innings.
Opposite Plutko will be the leading candidate for Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year, Kurt Heyer. That Heyer has been so good is not a surprise, considering how strong he has been for two years, but this year has been truly exceptional for him. The junior is 5-1 with a 2.10 ERA and while his strikeout numbers aren't incredible (55 in 60 innings), his command has been fantastic, with just nine walks to his name this season. He's coming off of a great start, too, in which he allowed just two runs in a complete game effort. The Bruins did touch him up for four runs in 7.1 innings last year, though.
On Saturday (6 pm PT), Nick Vander Tuig will take to the mound in hopes of looking nothing like he has of late. The right-hander has been getting roughed up recently, culminating in a 5.1 inning start a week ago that saw him strike out just one and give up eight runs on 10 hits. While he is still 3-2 on the year, Vander Tuig now sports a 5.29 ERA, has just 31 strikeouts and opponents are hitting .286 against him. Obviously, things need to get better.
Arizona will counter with a right-handed sophomore of their own, but he's been very different than Vander Tuig this year. Konner Wade is 4-0 with a 3.71 ERA on the year thanks to nearly a strikeout per inning and .206 batting average against, but it hasn't been all good. He's also averaging 3.5 walks per nine innings and coming off of a start in which he allowed five runs in 6.2 innings against Utah.
Finishing things up on Sunday (12 pm PT) for UCLA will be Zack Weiss, who makes his return to the weekend rotation after missing four straight weekend starts with shoulder soreness. He has pitched in the last two weekends out of the bullpen, though, and really impressed last Sunday with 4.1 innings of one-run ball in relief to give the Bruins confidence in his return to the starting rotation. He's 1-1 with a 3.58 ERA this year, but even though he did look great last weekend, nobody is really sure what to expect of him.
Like Saturday, Sunday is also a match-up of right-handed sophomore with the Wildcats turning to James Farris. He is 4-1 on the year, but it comes with a 4.29 ERA. His strikeouts aren't exceptional and teams are hitting .268 on him this season, but he has walked just five and has two complete games to his name this season so UCLA will gave to come out looking to swing the bats on Sunday.
With the Arizona offense as good as it is and sure to score some runs, no matter how good the UCLA pitchers are, the Bruin bats will have to turn it up a notch. After smoking the ball for weeks, the Bruins have scored just 22 runs in their last five games, which isn't awful, but it is not the exceptional output they had earlier in the season. It will have to be exceptional this weekend and that means finding depth in the lineup. Beau Amaral, Tyler Heineman and Jeff Gelalich have been fantastic, with Cody Keefer and Trevor Brown helping out too, but the Bruins are going to need to hit in the bottom half on the lineup this weekend.
What the series could come down to is defense. Arizona moved into a new ballpark this season, Hi-Corbett Field, and it's very much a pitchers' park. The gaps are huge and the infield is quick, meaning that the athleticism of the Bruins in the field could pay off huge. That Arizona has the second-worst defense in conference play this season could be what does them in.
For the first time this season, John Ramey will be on the road for the weekend so he will have the call online. Friday's game will also be televised by FSN on a tape-delay basis and GameTracker will be going. Of course, make sure to check my UCLA baseball twitter for game updates, notes, observations and everything else on the program.