The 2013 UCLA baseball season is finally here. Eight months of waiting has brought us to this point, a 20-week run to crown a national champion, and it all gets underway this weekend when the Bruins host Minnesota at Jackie Robinson Stadium.
Expectations are high for the Bruins, who are aiming for their third College World Seres in four years. That isn't as true of the Golden Gophers, who are normally one of the Big 10's top teams, but have slumped to a couple mid to lower conference finishes in a row and looked primed for another this season.
Last season, UCLA didn't get off to quite the start they had hoped for. They lost their first series of the season at home to Maryland and actually dropped three of their first four. It looked like they were going to make it four losses in their first five, too, but a sixth-inning rally turned the Bruins' game, and season around. This season, they would prefer if it didn't take similar heroics.
Adam Plutko will be charged with making sure this season starts better than last as the Bruins' Friday night (6 p.m. PT) starter. The right-hander is coming off a 12-3, 2.48 ERA season and has been even better in his two season-opening starts, not allowing a single run in 13 innings. The only time Plutko ran into trouble last season was when he command betrayed him -- he walked 3.5 batters per nine innings -- so unless he struggles to find the plate, it's tough to see the Gophers knocking him around much.
Minnesota does have an excellent hurler to counter Plutko, though. Tom Windle went 3-5 with a 3.27 ERA a year ago, but he was hampered by injuries for parts of the season. Healthy and strong again by the summer, Windle went to the Cape Cod League where he was absolutely dominant. The southpaw struck out a mind-boggling 40 batters to just four walks and is primed for a huge season this year so the UCLA offense will be tested from the start.
As was the case last year, Nick Vander Tuig is the Bruins' Saturday man and will get the nod in the middle game this week (2 p.m. PT). The junior's numbers weren't exceptional last year, when he went 10-4 with a 4.43 ERA, because for most of the year he wasn't exceptional. He did just enough to keep UCLA in games, which is fine and effective, but won't blow anybody's doors off. Vander Tuig really turned it on in the postseason, though, taking a no-hitter into the eighth in the Regionals and allowed one run in six-plus innings in the Super Regionals. If that Vander Tuig shows up this season, watch out.
Opposite Vander Tuig will be Ben Meyer, who spent most of last season as a reliever. He started just twice, but was very good out of the bullpen, compiling a 2.37 ERA and striking out four for every walk he issued. Meyer did pitch just 38 innings a year ago so he's going to have to prove he can pitch deep into games as a starter and UCLA will certainly make it hard on him with an especially disciplined approach.
Wrapping up the series on Sunday (1 p.m. PT) for UCLA will be Grant Watson, who won the final weekend rotation spot in the fall and moves up a peg from last season, when he was the midweek starter. Watson was 9-2 with a 4.45 ERA last year, but proved he was a much more effective starter than reliever. The southpaw went 8-1 with a 3.7^ERA as a starter and 6-0 with a 2.67 ERA in midweek starts. With an excellent four-pitch mix, Watson can be a very good Sunday starter for the Bruins if he can show some improved command because walks did get the best of him at times as a freshman.
Minnesota will turn to a left-handed sophomore of their own on Sunday in Jordan Jess, who made five starts and seven more appearances out of the bullpen as a freshman. Jess only took four decisions, going 2-2 and walks were a big problem, with 16 of them in just 24.2 innings, but he limited opponents to a .231 batting average and his 4.01 ERA was respectable. The Gophers were pleased with his development over the summer and fall so expect to see a better Jess on Sunday than the one who toed the rubber for Minnesota last year.
Playing a cold weather team early in the season is usually an advantage for teams from warm places, but that doesn't apply against Minnesota because they have the Metrodome to practice in. All the practice time in the world can't make up for an offense that has a lot of holes and not much support for Dan Olinger and Andy Menkemeyer, though. The Gophers are going to be very pitching dependent, and have a bullpen to match their rotation with Kevin Kray at the back end giving them a dynamite closer.
Making matters tougher on the Bruins will be the absence of Kevin Williams, whose shoulder injury will keep him out until March.Trent Chatterton will start in his place, but don't expect the diminutive freshman to match Williams' production. Even so, this is a series UCLA should win.
The series, and season, gets underway on Friday at 6 p.m. PT with a Saturday 2 p.m. PT game to follow and a Sunday game at 1 p.m. PT wrapping things up. Tickets for the series at Jackie Robinson Stadium are $8 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 as we get the 2013 campaign underway.