UCLA has gotten off to a shaky start this season and they haven't even left the friendly confines of Jackie Robinson Stadium yet, but that will change this weekend. The Bruins are heading to North Carolina for the USA Baseball-Irish Classic in Cary, where they will take on Notre Dame, NC State and Michigan.
The Bruins will get a good test on Saturday when they take on NC State -- and it's a rematch from last year's College World Series to boot -- but the other two games will not be quite as tough. Both Notre Dame and Michigan have struggled this season, giving the Bruins a chance to grab a pair of wins, but they're hardly in a position to take anyone easy at this point.
UCLA has backed up a four-game win streak with a three-game losing streak and head to North Carolina just 4-4. They've had little offense, their pitching has been just okay and defensively, they have struggled. The result has been a sputtering start to the season and questions about how good they really are.
On Friday (3:30 p.m. PT), UCLA will kick off their weekend against The Fighting Irish and their outstanding senior right-hander, Sean Fitzgerald, who is 2-0 with a 2.13 ERA this season.
Luckily for the Bruins, they have an ace of their own in James Kaprielian. The sophomore is just 1-1, but he has a 1.50 ERA and shut down a potent Cal Poly offense last weekend to the tune of one run, three hits and nine strikeouts in seven innings. The question for Kaprielian is his command, and as much whether he can keep his pitch count down by throwing strikes as it is whether he can find the plate enough to get outs. If he can, and he did last weekend, he can shut down any team in the country.
Saturday (1:30 p.m. ET) will see the Bruins take on the No. 6 Wolfpack and the best pitcher in the country. Carlos Rodon is just 1-1 with a 2.57 ERA this season, but he does have 15 strikeouts to just three walks and won USA Baseball Player of the Year in 2013. The Wolfpack chose to hold him back for the Bruins on Saturday as opposed to his regular Friday slot and UCLA will be tested.
Rodon will be opposed by Grant Watson, who has been so dependable for two years and was great in his first start of the season, but got hit hard last weekend. Cal Poly tagged him for six runs, five earned, in just four innings as he struggled with his command, walking three. He did have seven strikeouts, but he'll have to do a better job finding the plate, and keeping his fastball down in particular, against and NC State offense that has been great this season.
Finally, UCLA will take on Michigan (9 a.m. PT) to close out the weekend. All eyes will be on Cody Poteet, who has struggled this season, failing to go deep in either start. He's 0-1 with a 6.43 ERA and needs a good outing this weekend to right things. That means spotting the fastball, which has betrayed him and made it difficult for him to use his good breaking stuff.
Michigan will counter with Evan Hill, who doesn't strike out many and has a 4.76 ERA on the young season. Like any left-hander, Hill isn't a great match-up for the Bruins, but Poteet needs to get some breathing room if he's going to straighten things out and that means the offense needs to break out.
The UCLA offense hasn't been a total disaster this season, with Shane Zeile hitting .370 and three others batting over .300, but they don't have a lot of power, which means they need depth in the lineup. They haven't gotten that this season, with three starters hitting under .225, including Pat Gallagher, who has struggled to .148 in a year the Bruins expected a lot from him.
The Bruins haven't gotten the job done with the gloves either. They have eight errors, which have led to five unearned runs in just eight games. UCLA is never going to be a huge offensive juggernaut and that's okay. They proved last season they can get the job done with pitching and defense, but they need better offense, more consistent pitching and a defense much, much better than it has been.
It's still early in the season and the Bruins were always going to need some time to bring it together. This is a big weekend to show that they are making that progress, and put nice road mark on their resume.