UCLA needs to keep from looking ahead to Arizona (Photo Credit: Scott Wu)
UCLA has pushed themselves to the top of the Pac-12, where they are tied with Arizona at 7-2, but things are about to get a lot tougher. Pretty much everything is tough in the Pac-12, which many believe is the top conference in the nation this season, but the Bruins are about to go through the real gauntlet. A trio of series against Arizona, Oregon St. and Stanford, considered by most to join UCLA as the top four in the conference, are on deck for the Bruins starting next week and it is those three series that many believe will determine their conference fate, but there is one weekend to play before that and it is not one to be overlooked.
Oregon may not be considered a contender for the Pac-12 title, but they are only a game out of first place after sweeping Arizona St. a week ago. This is the same team that went to Nashville and swept Vanderbilt and swept Long Beach St. at Blair Field, too, so playing on the road doesn't scare the Ducks. Oregon can play and while it would be easy to look forward to next week's clash with Arizona, there is a good team in the other dugout this week that would love to make their own claim to being a conference title contender.
To get something going against the Ducks will take a lot more of what UCLA has been getting out of their offense -- base hits and good base running. The three Oregon starters have combined to allow just one home run all season so the Bruins are going to beat the Ducks with the long ball, but they can string together hits. With Oregon's offense inconsistent at best, UCLA will look to jump out to early leads so they can press the Ducks' offense, which is short on power, into playing catchup.
With Sunday being Easter, this weekend's series gets underway a day early and the Bruins will send Adam Plutko to the mound for the odd Thursday game (6 pm PT). The sophomore wasn't at his best last week as the walk bug bit him, walking five, but he still managed to keep a shutout in 6.2 innings. He struck out six and limited Utah to just four hits, but those walks are a concern. It came on the heels of a three-walk outing and he had a pair of four-walk starts earlier in the season so walks are not new to him, but against a team that is patient, will wear a pitch and don't possess a lot of power, the last thing Plutko wants to do this weekend is walk batters.
Plutko will have to keep the Ducks off the bases and scoreboard because he will be going up against one of the Pac-12's best. Alex Keudell is just 3-3 on the year, but his ERA is down at 2.40 and opponents are hitting just .238. He doesn't overpower guys, but he works down in the zone, throws strikes and dares batters to string together hits. Doing that against a guy who you cannot lift the ball against is unbelievably difficult and it is why he has had so much success this weekend. Plutko will have his hands full trying to match Keudell, but there is no doubt that he's capable of pitching with the best and the Bruins offense has racked up runs against good pitchers before.
Nick Vander Tuig will get the nod for UCLA on Friday (6 pm PT) as he looks to get back on track. For a couple weeks it was the home runs that were biting the sophomore, but he didn't allow a long ball last week and still surrendered four runs without making it out of the sixth. Struggles or not, Vander Tuig is still 3-1 and he worked 1.2 scoreless innings against the Ducks last year so even if the numbers don't shine, history and all-important wins are on the right-hander's side.
Wins haven't exactly been on Jake Reed's side, no matter how good the Oregon freshman has been. Reed threw 7.1 shutout innings against Arizona St. last week to lower his ERA to 2.22 and pick up a man that got him back to .500 on the season. Like Keudell, he's not a big strikeout guy, but he works in the low-90's and has had no problems getting out this season. Opponents are hitting just .216 against him and maybe most impressively, he's averaging nearly seven innings a start so he's eating up innings for the Ducks.
Wrapping up the series on Saturday (12 pm PT) for the Bruins will be Grant Watson, who got back on track last weekend against Utah. He pitched magnificently three weeks ago, but then got roughed up two weeks ago. Last week, he was back to magnificent, allowing just one run in six innings to pick up the win and push his record to a team-best 6-1.
Once again, Oregon will counter with another fine pitcher. This time it is right-hander Brando Tessar, who is 4-0 with a 2.64 ERA and like the rest of the Ducks' starters, he was strong again last weekend. The sophomore didn't allowed a run to Arizona St. in 6.1 innings, but like UCLA's Plutko, he had some problems finding the plate. Tessar walked six in the content, giving him 24 free passes on the season so while he has been good, there is clearly a way to get men on against Tessar.
Getting men on has been a real problem at the plate for Oregon. They are hitting just .259 and while they have done well to draw walks and get hit by pitches, it hasn't been nearly enough to score as many runs as they would like. Kyle Garlick is a truly scary hitter, batting .351 with a team-best four home runs and Aaron Jones has 12 extra base hits and a team-best 23 RBI, but there isn't a lot to scare the Bruins at the plate.
Luckily for UCLA, their offense has been very, very good. Jeff Gelalich is still leading the way, hitting his sixth home run of the year last weekend and continuing to hit for average with a .415 mark. He also has a team-best seven stolen bags and an on-base percentage over .500. Tyler Heineman has also been exceptional, hitting .400 and this weekend will surely be a thrill for Heineman and his family because his brother Scott plays for the Ducks.
All of the action this weekend gets underway on Thursday at 6 pm PT, continues on Friday at 6 pm PT and finishes up on Saturday at noon. 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.