Stanford Is The Final Major Hurdle For UCLA In The Pac-12

The UCLA defense will have to be sharp against a good Stanford offense (Photo Credit: Scott Wu)

If UCLA can get past this weekend, they are cruising down easy street to a possible Pac-12 title. Putting aside the popular, and true, refrain that there are no easy series, and that is especially true in the Pac-12, after this weekend, the Bruins have an easy finish to their conference season. Washington, Cal and USC, the Bruins' three final Pac-12 opponents, are eighth, ninth and 10th in the conference, giving the Bruins an edge in their race for a second consecutive Pac-12 championship.

Of course, they still need to win those series and before they can do that, they have this weekend to deal with. Stanford is still down in fourth place in the Pac-12, two-and-a-half games behind league leading Arizona, but they are also still the most talented team in the conference. They didn't get to a top three ranking and series wins over Texas, Vanderbilt and Rice earlier this season because they can't play and this weekend they are at Jackie Robinson Stadium with the hopes of making a splash to get right back in the Regional host race.

After the offense sputtered at the beginning of conference play, Stanford got it going last weekend. They pounded Arizona St., averaging more than 11 runs per game in a sweep of the Sun Devils. Considering that the Cardinal offense was explosive in non-conference play and touted as one of the best in the nation entering the season, that is not what the Bruins wanted. With Stephen Piscotty, Eric Smith, Brian Ragira, Austin Wilson and Kenny Diekroeger leading the way, the UCLA pitchers have a lot of firepower to deal with this weekend.

As tough as things will be, the reward for beating the Cardinal is huge. They are the highest ranked RPI team in the conference after the Bruins so a series win would go a long ways to fortifying a national seed worthy ranking there. It is also very much a marquee weekend and series to put on their resume, because while the Cardinal may be slumping, they are still very highly respected. More than anything, with the Bruins just a game out of first place in the Pac-12 and easily the easiest schedule down the stretch, UCLA probably becomes the favorites to win the conference if they get through this weekend just a game out of first place, or maybe even better.

Adam Plutko will put his 5-2 record and 2.98 ERA on the line when he toes the rubber on Friday night (6 pm PT). He was sensational a week ago, carrying a no-hitter into the seventh inning as part of 7.2 shutout innings of two-hit ball. That gives him two truly dominant starts on the season, last weekend at Oregon St. and earlier this year at Georgia. The Bruins would sure like to see him pitch like that at home now because when he's at his best, like he was last year, he really is unhittable.

Opposite Plutko will be a big right-hander who might be the number one overall pick in June's MLB Draft, Mark Appel. While he may be the number one pick, though, he hasn't been the most dominant of pitcher's around the country this year. He's 5-1 with a 2.88 ERA so he has been good, but with a killer fastball and some devastating offspeed, he is a scout's dream, and potentially the Bruins' nightmare.

Saturday's contest (2 pm PT) will see Nick Vander Tuig take the mound for UCLA. The junior is 4-3, but he has the staff's worst ERA at 5.22. Last weekend was another in a long line of starts in which he wasn't particularly good, but he wasn't particularly bad either. He gave up three runs in 5.1 innings, enough to keep the Bruins in the game, but his inability to go deeper into games is a problem.

Vander Tuig will be charged with going toe-to-toe with Brett Mooneyham, who is starting to make good on the potential he had when he got to Palo Alto. Big, long and lanky, Mooneyham had all of the tools to become a dominant pitcher, but he couldn't find the plate regularly and then missed all of last season due to injury. Now he's healthy, though, and with it has come some control, albeit not great control. He's walked 28 in 57 innings so he still has some work to do, but he's done enough to go 5-3 with a 3.32 ERA and strike out 67.

Zack Weiss will be back on the bump on Sunday (1 pm PT) and hopefully able to catch and throw the ball off of it. He gave up four unearned runs in just 3.1 innings last weekend, but the unearned runs were from his own errors as picking up and throwing to first on a sacrifice bunt became a problem. He came out of the bullpen with a solid inning on Tuesday to get a little more game work in and if he can field his position, he should be fine because he didn't pitch poorly last week.

Stanford hasn't named a starter for Sunday, but whoever he is, as well as Appel and Mooneyham, will be backed up by a strong bullpen. As expected, A.J. Vanegas is one of the top relievers in the conference and Piscotty has very strong out of the bullpen, but the Cardinal's strength is in their depth. They have seven relievers they can confidently go to so it's unlikely that they run out of arms this weekend. The one thing that could be a problem for them, though, is defense because starting shortstop Lonnie Kauppila is out for the year.

All of the action this weekend gets underway on Friday at 6 pm PT, continues on Saturday at 2 pm PT and finishes up 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 for game updates, notes, observations and everything else on the squad.

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