After this weekend, UCLA will dive headfirst into conference play with a trip to Cal, but first they have to get through a weekend against Pepperdine, Houston and Southern Cal. It is part of what was supposed to be the Dodgertown Classic, but construction at Dodger Stadium has displaced the tournament for the second straight year.
The Bruins once again go into a weekend in search of an offense, having scored just 2.5 runs per game in the last seven games. They're averaging just 7.5 hits per game on the season and only five Bruins are hitting over .215 on the season, with three regulars below the Mendoza line.
With that kind of feeble offensive output, UCLA is extremely dependent on shutdown pitching. They got that last weekend, with James Kaprielian, Grant Watson and Grant Watson combining to strike out 27 in 25 innings of six-hit, scoreless ball. Now the trio takes the mound again and they may have to be just as good.
Kaprielian is living up to the considerably hype that followed him into the season, going 2-1 with a 0.90 ERA in the early going. He's done it while striking out 12.15 per nine innings too, more than five times his walks per nine innings and opposing batters are hitting just .129 against him.
The sophomore will get the start on Friday against Pepperdine (6 p.m. PT) and he will be opposed by Corey Miller, a senior who has been brilliant this season. The right-hander is just 1-1, but has a 0.35 ERA and is coming off of 8.2 innings of one-run ball last weekend. The UCLA offense will struggle to get anything going against Miller so Kaprielian will have to dazzle yet again.
On Saturday, Grant Watson will be charged with replicating his performance from a week ago and shutting down Houston (2 p.m. PT). The southpaw threw eight shutout innings against No. 6 NC State, baffling a very good offense all afternoon. He enters the weekend 2-1 with a 2.37 ERA and opponents are hitting just .174 against him. For him, everything comes down to fastball command because if he can get to his curveball, he will get outs. Last week, his fastball was spot on.
It will have to be spot on again this weekend because the Cougars will give the ball to Jake Lemoine, who is 1-1 with a 0.42 ERA on the year. Lemoine took the loss last weekend, but he couldn't be blamed after holding Texas to just one earned run in seven innings. It was his defense that let him down, allowing two unearned runs as the Cougars fell, but Houston is 9-2 on the year and figure to be a stern test for the Bruins.
Finally, the weekend concludes across town at USC on Sunday (1 p.m. PT) in what UCLA hopes will be the continuance of remarkable dominance. The Bruins have won their last eight games against the Trojans and 23 of the last 38. In fact, USC hasn't won a season series from UCLA since 2005.
This is the best USC team in that timespan, though, giving them hope that maybe they can start making the rivalry competitive again. The Trojans are off to an 8-3 start this season, thanks to an explosive offense and deep pitching staff. There are still questions about how good the Trojans are, with their two full series coming against Northwestern and North Dakota St., but they were able to split a rain-shortened set with Cal Poly last weekend.
UCLA will turn to Cody Poeet to down USC and if he is anything like he was a week ago, he'll have the Trojans wrapped around his finger all game. The sophomore struck out 13 and walked none in a complete game, two-hit shutout to earn Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week and NCAA.com National Player of the Week. But Poteet struggled with consistency last season so there is no guarantee he'll be lights out again this weekend -- this is hist first test of growth from a year ago.
USC will go with experience against Poteet, throwing the senior Bob Wheatley. He has been very good this season, going 2-0 with a 0.47 ERA, but he's done it with six free passes and a hit by pitch. That may be the Bruins' way to strike against the left-hander, who otherwise figures to give UCLA a hard time
There won't be a Dodger Stadium game this season -- after all, it's hard to navigate around a dirt pit to get into the stadium -- but this represents a good test for UCLA. All three teams are playing well and all have excellent pitching, giving us a good barometer of where this Bruins offense is a weekend before Pac-12 play starts. At 7-5 on the season, the Bruins need to start getting wins, and quality wins at that. This weekend is that chance.