Nearly a month ago, I wrote about how early April would tell us everything we needed to know about UCLA. If they could manage their way through their first seven games of the month, they would be in incredible shape for a run at a Pac-10 title and national seed. Well, UCLA has made it through those seven games and where do they stand? How does #1 in the country sound? Not too shabby after 28 games, meaning they've passed the halfway point of the season.
The Bruins went just 4-3 in that key seven game stretch, their first three losses of the year, but they won a pair of tough Pac-10 series. That included one up in Corvallis in what may prove to be the toughest series UCLA plays all season. Now, the Bruins are being rewarded for their efforts by the national pundits and polls, but more importantly, they're in fantastic position to win the Pac-10. Winning the conference would certainly earn UCLA a national seed and let them play all their postseason games at Jackie Robinson Stadium (assuming they bid to host) until the College World Series.
Through six games, UCLA is 4-2 in conference play and just a half game behind the conference leaders, Arizona St. and Cal, who have both played one more Pac-10 series than the Bruins. UCLA has played two of the better teams in the conference, Oregon St. and Stanford, and has made one of the two toughest trips in the conference by going to Corvallis. Now, they get to play their toughest remaining series at home, versus Oregon, Washington St. and Arizona St. Having USC, far and away the Pac-10's weakest team still on the schedule is an added bonus.
Things are setting up extraordinarily for the Bruins, both in terms of schedule and postseason resume. UCLA is currently third in the RPI and according to Boyd, need to go 16-11 for a top eight RPI. In addition to their stellar 25-3 overall record, UCLA has records like 5-1 away from home, 4-0 on a neutral field, 6-3 against the RPI top 50 and no bad losses to boost their postseason profile. Even with so many things working in the Bruins' favor, things are going to be tough because the Pac-10 is in the midst of one of their strongest seasons in recent history.
Despite playing what was ranked as the toughest cumulative non-conference schedule of any conference in the country, the Pac-10 is 160-59 in non-league games this season. You could make a legitimate argument that eight teams from the conference would make it into a Regional if the season ended today. So, even though UCLA is in great position at this moment, it won't be a cakewalk to the finish line, especially in a Pac-10 that has four of the top five team ERA's in the nation.
The top challenger to the conference crown is actually the three-time defending conference champions. Arizona St. is a fellow top five team and many have already dubbed the Bruins/Sun Devils series at Jackie Robinson Stadium on April 30, May 1 and May 2 the best three-game set the college baseball world will see all year. The question for the Sun Devils is what happens with Josh Spence, the left-handed starter who was diagnosed with arm soreness prior to the season and has yet to pitch. Arizona St. is a stellar team without Spence, but with him, most would agree that they're the best team in the country.
The two Oregon teams are both very good, but have come from two very different places. Oregon St. are two-time national champions and were ranked in nearly every preseason poll. They've pitched as well as expected and rank near the top of the country on the mound, but their hitting has been sub-par. Oregon is in the same boat with sub-par hitting, but their pitching is actually better than what the Beavers have to offer, checking in at fourth in the nation in team ERA. The Ducks have done this in just their second year since reviving the program, a testament to the near magical abilities of head coach George Horton.
Just like Oregon has two quality teams, so does the Bay Area. Stanford is very talented all the way around the diamond and in the outfield, but they've struggled to get quality pitching from what were supposed to be the anchors of their staff. Still, the Cardinal are in good shape to qualify for the postseason with a young roster. Cal is even younger than the Cardinal, sometimes starting five freshman position players and relying upon freshmen in their weekend rotation and bullpen. Even so, the Bears are tied atop the Pac-10 with their two toughest series left, versus UCLA and Oregon St., at home.
After a hot start, Washington St. really cooled off and looked as if they would fall out of contention for the postseason, but a series win over Arizona St. last weekend has changed their fate. Now, the Cougars are back in the Pac-10 race and with a roster getting healthier, could be ready for a run. Their in-state rivals, Washington, have work to do if they're to make a run to the postseason, but that was never the expectation in Seattle. Under first-year head coach Lindsey Meggs, a former UCLA player, the Huskies are 17-13 and are as good as a second to worst team you'll find anywhere in the country.
The final two Pac-10 teams are polar opposites. There's Arizona, a team that played their first 26 games at home and did well despite an unbelievably young roster. When they hit the road for the first time, they were swept by Cal, but they rebounded with a series win at Washington. The Wildcats are good at home, where UCLA will play them, and as a young team, figure to improve as the year goes on. On the flip side you have USC, the conference's worst team who has struggled on the road and at home. They've racked up their wins against poor competition and don't have a single decent series win to hang their hat on, despite a roster than isn't overly young. Head coach Chad Kreuter looks to be headed for the door in another poor season.
A weekend series against USC might be the only time that things come easy in the Pac-10, but the crosstown rivalry will make even that series a chore for UCLA. The fact is that the Pac-10 is a brutal grind this season. No conference offers the same type of pitching that you find in the Pac-10 and the sound fundamental play will make it tough to get cheap runs. Playing in conference will frustrate all teams and it will be as much the mental toughness as the physical prowess that carries UCLA to their goal of a national seed and conference title and if they can do it, it will be well earned.