Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
Last season a win over Baylor turned the UCLA season along. This season the Bruins just need to keep things going on the road.
A year ago, UCLA welcomed Baylor in the second weekend of the season, having lost their opening series and desperate to take the three-game set against the Bears. But things went south quickly and a 15-3 loss sent the Bruins under .500 on the year. The Bruins' season was heading south quickly and locked in a tied ballgame in the second game of the series, things could have gotten really bad.
Then UCLA's season changed in one inning.
The Bruins struck for five runs in the sixth inning, turned a 3-3 tie into a 8-3 lead and eventually, a 9-3 win. That win sparked a 12-game win streak that set UCLA on the path to a second consecutive Pac-12 title and their second trip to Omaha in three years.
Now UCLA and Baylor meet again, but this time the tables are turned. The Bears were swept in their first series of the season by UC Irvine, while the Bruins picked up a series win are are in the top 10. This year's series is also in Waco, which will make things tougher on UCLA, but is also a huge opportunity.
The NCAA altered the RPI formula for this season so teams now receive bonus points for road wins. This trip to Waco is the Bruins' only non-conference road weekend series of the season, meaning that it is their best chance to give their RPI a big boost before the Pac-12 season gets underway even if Baylor is merely an above-average team instead of the excellent one they were a year ago. Wins are at a premium for UCLA this weekend.
Adam Plutko has always pitched well when the Bruins needed it most and they will hope that he can do so again on Friday (4:35 p.m. PT). The junior was solid last weekend, taking a no decision after allowing just two runs in 6.2 innings against Minnesota, but the Bears hit him hard a year ago. Plutko didn't even make it out of the fourth inning, getting knocking around for five runs on five hits, but more importantly, he walked four. Against a Baylor team that struck out 26 times and walked just three times last weekend, Plutko should do better this year.
Opposite Plutko will be Max Garner, who took a no decision for four innings of three-run work in the Saturday game a year ago that turned around UCLA's season. Garner didn't fare so well a week ago, lasting just 3.2 innings and surrendering three runs on three hits, two of which went for extra bases. The startling number for Garner was his three walks, though. If the Bruins are patient at the plate, they may get some base runners and cause havoc for the Bears by just standing there.
Nick Vander Tuig will try to keep his great run going when he starts the middle game on Saturday (1:05 p.m. PT). After a sterling postseason in 2012, many believed Vander Tuig could be a dominant pitcher for the Bruins in 2013 and at least for one day, he looked it. The junior tossed six innings of shutout ball, striking out three and walking none against the Gophers to start off this season just how he ended last season.
The Bruins will be happy to see Dillon Newman taking on Vander Tuig after the way they beat him last season. UCLA pushed four runs across on four hits in 2.2 innings of relief work by Newman, tagging Newman with the loss in the rubber game. Newman didn't look much better at the start of this season, either, giving up three runs on six hits in 4.2 innings against the Anteaters. But it is the three doubles and one home run allowed stand out even more for Newman, who didn't fool anyone and allowed Irvine to hit .333 last week.
Wrapping up the series will be Grant Watson, who will take to the mound on Sunday (11:05 a.m. PT) hoping to build on last weekend's sterling start. The southpaw had some trouble in the first inning, but once he settled down he was phenomenal and by the time he exited Watson had eight strikeouts to his name in six scoreless, two-hit innings. Watson fared well against Baylor a year ago, too, collecting the win on Sunday for 0.2 scoreless innings. If he commands his fastball like he did against Minnesota, Baylor (and pretty much every team) is going to have a tough time scratching anything across.
Baylor hasn't announced their starter for Sunday and they will probably throw four or five pitchers out to piece together a full game, but whatever they do, the Bears have an excellent bullpen to lean upon. Austin Stone, Trae Davis and Doug Ashby do the bulk of the work and all pitched well last season, but the Bruins' offense will provide them with a nice lesson.
The question for the Bears is whether their offense has any juice in it. Josh Ludy took his 16 homers and 71 RBI with him, leaving the Bears with a roster that combined for just 10 home runs last season. Baylor totaled just seven runs in the opening weekend and with so many new faces, it's tough to predict what the Bears will do at this point.
UCLA is also tough to predict, but it's not hard to deduce their goals. As is the case every weekend, it is about winning the series, something the Bruins did a week ago. Now they will look to do it on the road with some RPI bonuses awaiting them. If they are lucky, it might be apart of another 12-game win streak too.