Before the season, nobody would have guessed that Purdue's May trip to UCLA would have meant a ton to either team. More of the discussion was about why there is an odd May non-conference series between a Pac-12 and Big 10 team and not on the impact it will have on the postseason, but here we are and in discussing the series the two most-used words are "national seed."
UCLA and Purdue are both ranked in the top five of the RPI, putting themselves in prime position for a national seed. The Bruins have a few series losses as a knock against them, but they also have several exceptional series wins both home and away. The Boilermakers have a top notch record, but they haven't played a tough schedule. This weekend is an opportunity for the Bruins to chalk up another big series win, while the Boilermakers can answer their biggest test of the season and show that they aren't just Big 10 good, but legitimately really, really good.
The Bruins can afford to lose the series. It's not that they want to, but if they lose this weekend's series, but rolls off series wins in the last three weekends of the season and pick up a top two Pac-12 finish, they will have a good chance at a national seed. The Boilermakers have no room for error. Lose this weekend and it would be tough for Purdue to make a national seed claim so they go to Westwood knowing that this series is massive. The question is whether playing on a big stage for the first time will cause them to shrink or stand out.
It's a bit of an odd weekend because there is no Friday game and instead, the Bruins and Boilermakers will play a Saturday doubleheader before finishing things up on Sunday. Saturday's firs contest (1 pm PT) will see the up and down Adam Plutko take the ball. A week after throwing 7.2 shutout innings, Plutko got rocked last weekend, surrendering seven runs. It knocked record down to 5-3 and bumped his ERA up to 3.65, leaving him in search of the consistently the Bruins expected of him when they have him the task of starting on Friday nights.
Getting on track might not be enough for Plutko on Saturday, though. Purdue's Joe Haase is seemingly unbeatable, going 7-0 with a 3.38 ERA on the season. Amazingly, the Boilermakers have gone a perfect 11-0 in games started by Haase this season and last weekend was more of the same, as he held Michigan St. to just one run in seven innings. He doesn't blow people away, as evidenced by his striking out just 38 in 66.2 innings, but he's only walked 15 and is more than happy to use his defense.
Nick Vander Tuig will get the nod for UCLA in Saturday's second game (5 pm PT) and if he can pitch like he did for a few innings last week, the Bruins will be in business. After giving up two runs in the first inning, Vander Tuig was nearly unhittable until giving up back-to-back home runs to end his start. The result was a four-run start, which pushed his ERA to 5.32, but he did get the win to improve to 5-3. He's proven he can get outs, but the question is whether he can do it from the beginning of a start until the end of it.
Opposite Vander Tuig will be Lance Breedlove, a right-handed senior just like Haase. He has been the Boilermakers' best pitcher this season, even if his record is just 6-3. He has thrown two complete games, and unlike Haase, he racks up the strikeouts with 59 on the year to go along with his 2.71 ERA, but this is a chance for UCLA to actually jump on a guy. There is no doubt that Breedlove is good, but the more powerful right-hander is the type of pitcher that the Bruins have had success against, as opposed to the more crafty guys or left-handers.
The series will conclude on Sunday (1 pm PT) with Zack Weiss starting for the Bruins. The problem for UCLA is that they don't know what they are going to get from Weiss. He pitched the ball just fine two starts ago, but couldn't field his position. Last week he showed flashes of good pitching, but he got sloppy with mechanics, especially out of the stretch and started giving away free passes. It led to him taking the loss, pushing his record to 2-2 and his ERA to 3.80. If he can't find the plate again this weekend, it will look like more of the same, but if he can command the ball, watch out.
After putting a pair of seniors on the bump, Purdue will turn to a freshman on Sunday. Connor Podkul got a bit roughed up last weekend, surrendering three runs in just four innings, but he is still 2-1 with a 3.19 ERA on the season so he is no slouch. The Boilermakers won his previous three starts, but he has not always gone deep into starts and while Purdue has an incredible one-two punch in the bullpen, they are iffy after that.
Bullpens could determine this series, especially with the Saturday doubleheader. The Bruins are comfortable with David Berg in the seventh, Ryan Deeter in the eighth and Scott Griggs closing out ballgames, but they have the added boost of Grant Watson and Zack Ortiz too, who has come on lately. That depth could be the difference because while Blake Mascarello and Nick Wittgren are outstanding, there isn't a lot after them.
UCLA and Purdue are pretty similar teams. Haase and Breedlove are good, but not incredible and their bullpen is strong as long as they can stick to their top two, which they have done for the most part. Then, they lean on their offenses, which have ben tremendous. UCLA has the second-best offense in the Pac-12 and Purdue has bettered them, hitting .318 to UCLA's .306. Neither have a lot of power, but will wear you out. What will be a challenge for the Bruins will be working walks the way they usually do. The free pass has been a huge part of the UCLA offense and they lead the conference in walks, but Purdue's pitching staff doesn't walk many.
This is the biggest series Purdue has ever played so there is a lot on the line for them and they have been trying to organize the alumni bases to get out to Jackie Robinson Stadium for it. UCLA has played in these kind of series before, but that doesn't make it any less big. While they can get a national seed even if they lose the series, a series win puts them back in the driver's seat for one.
With Friday off, the series gets underway on Saturday with 1 pm PT and 5 pm PT games before finishing 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.