The Bruins have been better in their grays than whites (Photo Credit: Scott Wu)
Road games are supposed the biggest tests of good team. Anyone can win home games and mediocre teams have padded their record with a slew of home games only to be exposed on the road, but if you can win on the road then you are really good. Road games are the the ultimate challenge. Apparently nobody told UCLA that.
The Bruins have established themselves as one of the top dozen or so teams in the country. They could be a national seed and nobody would be surprised if they were in Omaha for the College World Series next month. Oh, and they have done it by being absolutely dominant on the road.
UCLA is 17-3 in games away from Jackie Robinson Stadium this season, good for the best road/neutral record in the entire country. They haven't done it by playing patsies either, going to places like Georgia and Arizona. The road has been the Bruins' friend this season so while most teams might look at the final road series of the weekend as a reason for celebration, UCLA could see it as a downer.
Downer or not, the Bruins are on the road for the final weekend this season and it's a chance to make up ground on Oregon, the Pac-12 leaders who are idle this weekend. If UCLA can sweep Cal in Berkeley this weekend then they will be just one game behind the Ducks heading into the final week of the season and give themselves a legitimate chance at repeating as conference champions.
As is always the case, Adam Plutko will get the nod for UCLA on Friday (2:30 pm PT). The right-hander hurled his second consecutive brilliant game last weekend, keeping Washington scoreless in seven innings just a week after taking a perfect game into the sixth inning. The two great starts have pushed Plutko's record to 7-3 and lowered his ERA to 3.09. If last season is any indicator, it will just go down even more this weekend, too. Plutko allowed just two runs on three hits in eight innings against the Golden Bears last year.
Cal's starter, Matt Flemer, pitched in that same game last season too, albeit out of the bullpen. He allowed a run on two its in 1.2 innings, but he's been a completely different pitcher this season. The senior has established himself as the Bears' ace, going 7-4 with a 2.37 ERA on the year. The key for Flemer has been his ability to rack up 60 strikeouts while walking just 13, putting the onus on the Bruins to come out swinging because he won't give away runs.
UCLA will turn to Nick Vander Tuig on Saturday (1 pm PT) with the hope that he can pitch as well as he did a week ago. The sophomore pitched into the seventh inning for the first time since March 17 and allowed just two earned runs in 6.1 innings. Vander Tuig now sits 7-3 on the year and has gotten his ERA under five, but with the postseason looming, the question is whether he can start stringing quality stats together
Opposite Plutko will be Justin Jones, the talented, but inconsistent junior. The southpaw showed up at Berkeley with plenty of hype and showed it at times. He was utterly dominant at times, but at other times he struggled to find the plate and couldn't get outs. Last season against UCLA was one of those times as Jones held the Bruins to just three runs, but it came on six hits and two walks in just three innings before his high wire act was enough for Dave Esquer. He's been better of late, but is still just 4-7 on the year with a 3.94 ERA on the season.
Zack Weiss will wrap things up for the Bruins on Sunday (1 pm PT), even if the Golden Bears don't know who they are going to pitch. Like Vander Tuig, Weiss will be looking to build on a strong start last week, when he allowed just two runs on five hits in 6.2 innings, but most importantly, he struck out five and walked just one. The right-hander now finds himself at 2-2 with a 4.17 ERA on the year, but he has a good start to build off of as he tries to his his stride for the postseason.
Slowing down the Cal offense won't be the toughest of challenges for UCLA, but it will be very tough against a few hitters. Mitch Delfino has put together a season in which he's hitting .374, but the star remains Tony Renda. The junior is the defending Pac-12 Player of the Year and is putting together another fine season with a .370 batting average, .453 on-base percentage, 101 total bases and 13 stolen bases as he does a little but of everything for the Bears. Cal has a couple guys who could pop you elsewhere in the order like Chad Bunting, who has nine homers, but there isn't a ton of depth in the lineup. It's all about stopping the stars.
Slowly, the Bears are watching their Regional hopes slip away, just one season after making it to the College World Series. They are not done yet, though, which means that Cal will be playing for their lives this weekend and giving the Bruins a really good go. The national seed is far from sealed for UCLA and against a desperate team, they will be challenged and then some. Luckily, as weird as it sounds, they are on the road.
John Ramey will be back in the Bay Area this weekend so he will have the call online 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.