Ever since UCLA and Arizona St. each started with incredible undefeated runs to start the season (22 games for UCLA, 25 for ASU) that ended on the same night, the two have been looked at as a tandem. Now, they face off in a mega-series.
The last time that Jackie Robinson Stadium was the site of a series even remotely as big as the one it will host this weekend was in 1997 and it also marks the last time the Bruins took part in a series of this magnitude. The series not only has national significance and postseason seeding significance, but Pac-10 title significance as well. Jackie Robinson Stadium is as prepared as it has ever been with a recently expanded capacity of over 2,000 that will be pushed to its limits by those clad in both maroon and blue.
If UCLA can pull off a series win this weekend, they'll have defied history. Since 2004, the Bruins have taken their Pac-10 series from Arizona St. just once, in 2006. A series win this weekend would show that the Bruins have no issues with the spotlight and change the perception of the program around the country, while also positioning the Bruins will for a Pac-10 title run. At just 2.5 games back of Arizona St. in the Pac-10 race, UCLA can move to within a game and a half with a series win, which would give them a good chance to chase down the Sun Devils because of the extremely difficult schedule the Devils have the rest of the way.
To pick up a series win, though, the Bruins will have to stifle a potent Arizona St. attack. The Sun Devils are the highest scoring team in the Pac-10 and rank in the top three in every major offensive category, including home runs and stolen bases, which they lead the conference in by a large margin. For comparison, the Bruins check in right in the middle of the conference in most offensive categories and lead in none. The stolen bases is the category that will loom large this weekend because it is representative of the Sun Devils' team speed. In addition to the stolen bases, ASU also leads the conference in doubles and triples because they are fast from top to bottom.
One thing that is often overlooked, but will loom large this weekend is the pitching that each team gets from its bullpen. The UCLA bullpen in anchored by their closer, Dan Klein, who has risen up the draft boards on the back of a sensational season. In 29 innings, Klein has allowed two runs for 0.62 ERA that has accounted for a 3-0 record and eight saves. The Bruins will also have three more relievers available, Erik Goeddel, Matt Grace and Garett Claypool, who have gotten heavy use and have ERAs below 2.50. The Sun Devils counter with four relievers of their own with sub-2.50 ERAs and an ace closer in Jordan Swagerty, who has 10 saves, although his numbers do not match those of Klein.
Friday night (6 pm PDT) will see the Bruins and Sun Devils take to the field for the first time in the series. Gerrit Cole will lead the Bruins, toeing the rubber in the series opener. Cole is 6-1 with a 2.89 ERA with 12.42 strikeouts per nine innings, the best in the Pac-10. A year ago, Cole struck out nine and allowed two runs in 6.1 innings versus the Sun Devils in hitter-friendly Tempe, although he did absorb the loss. Seth Blair, ASU's starter on Friday night, did not fare nearly as well when he faced the Bruins a year ago, surrendering seven runs in three innings. The junior has been strong this season since being elevated to the Friday night role in the absence of injured ace Josh Spence. Blair is 7-0 with a 3.08 ERA. One thing that has been an issue for Blair is something he can do nothing about as he's allowed nine unearned runs this year on top of the 21 earned.
The pitching match-up on Saturday (2 pm PDT) favors the Bruins more so than any other game this weekend. UCLA's Trevor Bauer, who is 6-2 with a 2.57 ERA, holds a distinct advantage over Arizona St.'s Merrill Kelly, who has a 3.75 ERA, but he is a perfect 8-0. Bauer is third in the Pac-10 in strikeouts per nine innings and was solid, even if he wasn't spectacular, last year versus ASU when he threw a complete game and allowed four runs in the Bruins' only win of the series. Kelly is a JC transfer so he has not pitched against UCLA in the past, but his low strikeout to walk ratio (not quite 2:1) makes him a favorable match-up for the home team.
Often, any close series comes down to the series' final game and this Sunday (1 pm PDT) could very well determine the series' outcome. Rob Rasmussen will get the nod for the Bruins and will carry a 6-1 record and 2.85 ERA into the contest. The junior is second in the Pac-10 in strikeouts per nine innings and will look to bounce back from a rough start last weekend in which he allowed four runs (three earned) without making it out of the fourth inning. Opposing Rasmussen will be Jake Borup, who is 8-1 with a 3.58 ERA and has allowed just one home run this season, the fewest among Pac-10 starting pitchers.
With so much on the line this weekend, mistakes will be costly and when it comes to defense, the Sun Devils have a slight edge. ASU's .974 fielding percentage is the best the Pac-10 has to offer, but the Bruins are right behind them with a .972 fielding percentage of their own. UCLA has struggled to drive runners in when they get them on base of late, but the same goes for the Sun Devils. One thing that may separate the teams is the home field advantage that the Bruins have. The Sun Devils are a phenomenal 35-5 this season, but just 5-3 away from home.
Things get underway on Friday at 6 pm PDT and continue on Saturday at 2 pm PDT before finishing with Sunday's 1 pm PDT game. The series is receiving as much media attention as West Coast college baseball ever gets in the regular season and will not only have the focus of the Bruin and Sun Devil faithful, but the college baseball fans nationwide. Jackie Robinson Stadium will be packed to the gills and will have the buzz and atmosphere that accompanies such big games.
Tickets to a game are $7 for adults, $5 for children and free for Wooden Club cardholders. The ticket office and gates open 90 minutes before first pitch and seating is general admission so grab your spot and hold on to it for dear life. For those of you unable to make it out to the stadium and pack the stadium blue, you can follow along with GameTracker or listen in with John Ramey on the audio call. You can also get updates on my UCLA baseball twitter, where I'll also have all the links from around the country on the games and any significant statistics all weekend. It's a big series out at Jackie Robinson Stadium and a fun time for all those involved, although the home faithful will hope that the blue have more fun than the maroon.