If UCLA's goal was to start peaking at the beginning of Pac-12 play, they looked like they nailed it last weekend. The Bruins opened their conference slate with a sweep of Cal in Berkeley with their most complete performance of the season. Their pitching was predictably outstanding, their offense came through with timely hitting and their struggling defense did not make an error in the last 26 innings of play.
The Bruins' sweep earned them a first place tie in the conference, along with Oregon St., and they were three huge wins because UCLA needs to take advantage of a soft start to their Pac-12 season. Cal is a solid team, but neither is expected to compete for the conference title so racking up wins and trying to build a little cushion before they play the Oregon schools in back-to-back weeks in May is huge.
The quest to build that cushion continues this weekend at Jackie Robinson Stadium, where the Bruins will host Washington St. The Cougars are a good squad, although they are just 8-9 on the season. They are an experienced team and have been playing great of late, going 7-3 in their last 10, giving them plenty of momentum heading into the weekend.
James Kaprielian will be charged with stymying the Cougars on Friday (6 p.m. PT) and there's good reason to believe he will. The sophomore is 3-2 with a 2.97 ERA and limited Cal to two runs in eight innings last weekend. He will be opposed by Jason Monda, who is 0-1 with a 3.27 ERA and tossed one shutout inning against the Bruins last season.
Saturday (2 p.m. ET) will see Grant Watson get the nod as he tries to defend his Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week title. The southpaw was tremendous, tossing eight innings of two-hit, one-run ball to improve to 3-1 with a 1.91 ERA on the season. Wazzu will counter with Joe Pistorese, who is 1-0 with a 2.54 ERA, but the Bruins pounded him last season, notching six runs (three earned) in 6.1 innings a year ago.
The series concludes on Sunday (1 p.m. ET) with Cody Poteet on the mound for UCLA. The sophomore has put together a wonderful string of starts, including a seven inning start last week that saw him surrender just one run on three hits. That saw him improve to 2-1 with a 2.15 ERA on the season, much better than the 1-2 record and 3.76 ERA that Wazzu starter Tanner Chleborad sports.
The key for UCLA will be getting to the Washington St. bullpen because the Cougars don't have a ton to offer in relief. They're last in the conference in pitching and have the third worst defense so it's not as if their hurlers are getting help either.
Meanwhile, the Bruins are clicking. In addition to their improved defense a week ago, Shane Zeile and Christoph Bono are still red hot. Zeile has seen his average rise to .362 and Bono's to .319, while both have 13 RBI and are slugging .449. Brian Carroll is also hitting well, batting .309, and Ty Moore looks good too. The question for UCLA is at the bottom of their lineup because Chris Keck and Pat Gallagher are still hitting under .200, while Kevin Williams has come through with clutch hits, but little consistency en route to a .222 average since returning from injury.
UCLA is starting to find a groove, but they're not at their best yet. If last week's goal was to start off Pac-12 play perfect, this week's is to get better, which means showing off a deeper lineup, a more consistent bullpen and parlaying that into another sweep. It's a tall task for a still developing team, but with the Pac-12 as tough as it is, that's the bar they have to meet.