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UCLA Looks To Get Into Gear At E. Carolina

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At some point the Bruins (3-11) have to turn it around and play to their potential, right? Well we sure hope so and maybe it'll be this weekend in Greenville, North Carolina when they take on the East Carolina Pirates. UCLA will have be able to go into this weekend with the losing streak monkey off their back following their 5-3 win over UC Santa Barbara on Tuesday, but will have to battle the demons from Wednesday's game when they took a 6-4 lead to the ninth, only to give up six. The Bruins got an outstanding start from Garett Claypool on Tuesday when he allowed only one run in five innings, then another from Trevor Bauer on Wednesday when he limited the Aztecs to two hits and one run in six innings, but the bullpen was shaky. Matt Grace allowed one earned run on Tuesday and another unearned run before Mitchell Beacom threw three fantastic innings to earn the save and four relievers all allowed runs for UCLA on Wednesday.

East Carolina is off to a hot start at 10-2 and look ready to compete for the conference crown in the always competitive Conference USA. This is UCLA's last non-conference weekend series before Pac 10 play begins next weekend at USC so while it seems like the season is just beginning, the Bruins can't afford many more losses. Originally, the series was scheduled to be played Friday, Saturday, Sunday like a normal series, but with rain in the forecast all weekend, the schedule was changed. The Bruins and Pirates will now try to play a doubleheader on Friday with the series finale Saturday, but the forecast doesn't inspire confidence in the ability to get any games in.

Friday's first game (9 am PST) will pit UCLA's Rob Rasmussen against East Carolina's Seth Maness. Rasmussen is 1-0 on the year with a 2.81 ERA despite having pitched against three tough teams in UC Davis, #9 Rice and #15 Oklahoma. Rasmussen has allowed opposing batters to hit a meager .211 against him and has surrendered only one home run in 16 innings. Last weekend at Oklahoma, Rasmussen allowed two runs in five innings, but walked five. The Pirates are a very patient team so Rasmussen will need to have better command if he wants to succeed in Greenville. East Carolina's Maness has been less than stellar this year. He has a 6.50 ERA, but the Pirate bats have picked him up and have gotten him a 1-0 record. In his last start, which was versus Le Moyne, Maness allowed seven runs and 11 hits in four innings so he's got an uphill climb. It will be vital for UCLA that they are aggressive at the plate versus Maness because he doesn't walk many batters and if he can get ahead in the count, his offspeed pitches are a killer. His fastball is very hittable though and has been hit early and often this year so UCLA needs to use those sticks.

The second game of Friday's doubleheader, which will start 45 minutes after the completion of the first game, will see both UCLA and East Carolina send their best pitchers (numbers wise) to the mound. The Bruins will pitch Gerrit Cole who gave up six runs, four earned, in only three innings last weekend at Oklahoma where he fought off blisters. Those four earned runs were the first earned runs that Cole had allowed all year and despite the rough outing, he still has a 2.40 ERA to go with 18 strikeouts in 15 innings. Despite the fantastic numbers, Cole is 1-2 on the year because of shoddy defense that has is responsible for as many unearned runs as Cole is for earned runs, four. On the other side is East Carolina's Chris Heston who is 2-0 on the year with a 3.44 ERA. Heston is coming off of a strong start last weekend when he allowed just two earned runs in six innings while striking out eight. Heston is prone to bouts of wildness so it will be important for UCLA to get an early read on him before committing to a game plan.

On Saturday (time TBD, weather depending) UCLA will give the ball to Charles Brewer with the hope that he continues his steady improvement this year. After a decent opening start where he didn't go deep, Brewer had a strong relief appearance then a slightly better start. Last weekend he had his best start of the year when he went 6.1 innings and struck out eight while allowing five hits and three runs at Oklahoma. Now, the Bruins hope he can go deep into the game once again and maybe shave a run off last week's start. Brewer has shown improved command of his fastball, which has gotten him ahead in counts and allowed him to keep batters off-balance. East Carolina has yet to announce their starter and doesn't have an apparent candidate or two so I'm not going to delve into their several possibilities, especially for a game that looks unlikely to be played.

East Carolina is a team that is carried by their offense, but in fairness, nearly any team with an offense as potent as theirs would be. The Pirates do not have a starter batting below .300, have four starters batting over .400 and another who's batting over .500. That man batting over .500 is LF Stephen Batts who is batting .510 with three homers and has stolen seven bases in as many attempts. The leading RBI man in the Pirate lineup is 1B Brandon Henderson who has 17 RBI with a couple homers and a .395 batting average. As a team, ECU is batting .383 with a .451 on-base percentage.

The Bruins will be going into a very hostile environment this weekend and none of it is weather related. ECU's Clark-LeClair Stadium is one of the nation's nicest, but also a very tough place to play. The Pirate fans routinely fill the 3,000 seat stadium then have upwards of a thousand more on hills behind the outfield fences, affectionately known as "The Jungle." The Pirate fans will be very vocal and will do their best to rattle the UCLA players, but this is the Bruins' third consecutive road series and should be accustomed to unfriendly confines, even if they haven't been anywhere like Clark-LeClair. It's do or die time for the Bruins. With Pac 10 play only a week away they're running out of time to turn their season around and this weekend seems to be as good a time as any. Sure, the Bruins can wait until conference play and use the Pac 10's automatic berth to get into a regional, but it sure would be nice to take some momentum into next weekend's showdown with USC.