The Bruins can win one of their few remaining tough Pac-12 series this weekend in Corvallis (Photo Credit: Scott Wu)
After dropping the opening game of last weekend's three-game set at Arizona, it looked like UCLA was in some trouble. The Wildcats were the top team in the Pac-12, playing great at home and had a red-hot offense. None of that matters to the Bruins, though, who stormed back to win the next two games and move into a tie with Arizona and Oregon atop the Pac-12 at 10-5. Toss in a midweek win over Cal St. Northridge and the Bruins sit at 25-8 overall, too, with a RPI third-best in the country, putting them in a great position to not just compete for the conference title, but a national seed that will allow them to host a Regional and Super Regional.
But before the Bruins can look to the postseason, they have business to handle in-season, and that continues this weekend when they are at Oregon St. for their second consecutive road series. As much attention as UCLA, Arizona and Oregon St. have gotten for topping the conference, as well as the respect Stanford continues to get for being the most talented team in the Pac-12, many have forgotten about the Beavers.
They are back at 6-6 in the conference and have been on the cusp of the top 25 all year, bouncing in and out, but they are one winning streak away from getting into the Regional host conversation. Most important to the Bruins, they are a RPI top 50 team, giving them a chance to pick up some quality wins and get one of their toughest conference series remaining out of the way.
There is no reason to think that the Bruins can get the job done in Corvallis this weekend either. Last time they went to Goss Stadium they walked away with two wins so they have done it before, and the teams that have given UCLA problems are those that have dominant pitching staffs. That isn't the Beavers, who are good on the mound, but not dominant and don't blow opponents away. More than anything, though, UCLA has been excellent away from Jackie Robinson Stadium, racking up a 10-1 record so the unfriendly confines up north won't do much to scare the Bruins off.
As always, Adam Plutko will be on the mound for the Bruins on Friday (5:35 pm PT). The right-hander wasn't at his best last week, but he was good, keeping the Bruins in the game against the nation's best offense with six innings of three-run ball. He walked two, which isn't a bad number, but just 56 of his 95 pitches were for strikes so he has some improving to do. Plutko was strong against the Beavers last year, allowing two runs in 6.1 innings to pick up the win so he has past success to draw upon.
Opposite Plutko will be Ben Wetzler, a southpaw who has been tremendous this season. The sophomore is 4-1 with a 2.98 ERA and .217 batting average against. He's struck out just 39 in 57.1 innings and he's walked 20, but he has yet allow a home run so he keeps the ball in the ballpark. He was done in last weekend, giving up three runs, all unearned, in 6.1 innings, but the Bruins did nick him a bit last year to the rune of three runs in 5.1 innings so they have reason to think they could get to him this season.
Saturday's contest (1:05 pm PT) will see Nick Vander Tuig toe the rubber for UCLA, fresh off of a 5.1 inning, three run start a week ago that saw him improve to 4-2 on the season. His ERA is still up at 5.24 and he's hardly efficient, struggling to go deep into games like last week when he threw 103 pitches without even getting out of the sixth inning. Still, he is managing to keep the Bruins in games enough to get wins and he was good in relief against Oregon St. last year, tossing 1.2 scoreless frames.
Zack Weiss will wrap things up for the Bruins on Sunday (1:05 pm PT), a week after returning to the starting rotation with a good outing against the Wildcats. The sophomore limited Arizona to two runs in six inning and striking out five against a team that is notoriously difficult to punch out. He's just 2-1 on the season, largely because a month out of the rotation with shoulder soreness, but he has a solid 3.48 ERA and opponents are hitting just .221 against him.
Oregon St. has not named a starter for Saturday or Sunday, which is normal for them, but you can bet on seeing Jace Fry on one of those days. The freshman went to Corvallis with high expectations and he's met them, going 3-2 with a 2.80 ERA in six starts this season. Opponents are hitting a mere .209 off of him and he's allowed just two extra base hits all year so he's going to give UCLA a tough time.
The key for the UCLA pitchers will be cracking down on Tyler Smith and Michael Conforto. The former is hitting a .425 , while the latter is hitting .357 with an incredible 51 RBI and eight home runs on the year. The rest of the Beavers' lineup is not nearly as imposing and a lac of depth has them hitting just .285, but they have been resourceful and are averaging 6.9 runs per game.
Add in the outstanding defense that Oregon St. always plays and the one thing you get is a team that doesn't beat themselves much. Nobody ever looks at the Beavers as a power team to fear, and have not for years now, but they scratch out wins year, after year, after year.
John Ramey will be back on the road for the weekend so he will have the call online from Goss Stadium. If you have ROOT Sports up in the Northwest then you can watch Saturday's game live and GameTracker will be going all weekend. Of course, make sure to check my UCLA baseball twitter for game updates, notes, observations and everything else on the program.