This past weekend versus Arizona St., we learned one very important thing. UCLA is not one of the best teams in the country. Three teams have separated themselves as the best in the country, Arizona St., Texas and Virginia, and UCLA is certainly a step below them. The Sun Devils were better in every aspect of the game and they were the best at the basics. They ran the bases smart, they threw strikes and most impressively, they put together one of the best defensive weekends you will ever see from a college team. They were flawless. On the other hand, UCLA wasn't awful, but they were easily a step below.
The Bruins were exposed this weekend as a team not quite ready to be mentioned as a national title favorite and that was a disappointment to most of the blue and gold faithful. After all, wasn't UCLA 22-0 to start the year? Aren't they led by one of the best pitching staffs in the country? Wasn't this weekend supposed to set the Bruins up for a run at the Pac-10 title? Yes, yes and yes.
To be disappointed, angry or upset about being being whipped upon 23-5 over the course of the weekend is understandable and you can count me in as one of those who came away feeling that way. Upon further reflection, maybe the team didn't lay an egg. Sure, it wasn't their best weekend of play, but maybe the fall was only so severe and the emotions running so high because we raised them up higher than they should have been?
Remember back in February when we were looking ahead at the 2010 season? We were saying that the postseason was a must, but the idea of a conference championship was dependent on Arizona St. buckling under the pressure and not handling their coaching change well. They've had no such problems and as a result, they're dominating the conference, as expected.
When we previewed the 2010 season, we also focused on one thing. Could the offense score enough to win games? I mean, this was an offense that finished in the bottom third nationally in every offensive category in 2009 and lost their top three hitters as well as over 60% of their home runs. To be concerned about the Bruins' ability to hit was natural and at the end of my season preview of the position players, I posed this question
With an excellent pitching staff, the offense will not be heavily depended on, but they must be adequate and with so much inexperience and question marks, adequacy is still no sure thing.
To look back and think that we were optimistically hoping for adequacy is revealing. We knew the offense would struggle and guess what? They are. In conference play they are hitting just .247 and with such little power (nine home runs in 15 games), they're dependent on stringing hits together. That can always leave you vulnerable to dry spells, especially when you're not an overly fast team.
Since their hot start, UCLA has been just about what we expected them to be offensively. We may have bought into the early season success of the offense, but is it the team or us who is to be faulted for that? After a hot start, the Bruins have faced better pitching, more intense games and now, opponents have scouting reports on them. They have also had to deal with some nagging injuries and nicks, further adding to the struggles. That happens every season and it's happened this season. Over the course of 56 games, teams usually come down or climb up to normalcy. We knew the offense would have its issues and it has.
One other thing that has begun to catch up to the Bruins is youth and inexperience, not so much in total, but in big games. With the exception of Blair Dunlap, Niko Gallego and Justin Uribe, none of the Bruin position players have played much in the postseason or a regular season series with a title on the line. By missing out on the postseason last year, the UCLA sophomores and juniors who didn't play much as freshmen missed out on that. On the pitching side of things, things are a bit better with Garett Claypool, Rob Rasmussen, Dan Klein and Matt Grace all getting some postseason work, but that leaves half of the starting staff without that experience and half of the heavily relied upon bullpen.
With such inexperience, a big series is a new experience. Two-thirds of the position players and half of the pitchers might as well be freshmen when they step onto the field for a series with increased pressure. Missing the postseason even once does that to a program. That said, even though the Bruins were swept, the series versus Arizona St. could prove to be advantageous come June's postseason when they have some experience with a high-pressure series.
UCLA still has one of the best pitching staffs in the country, but they were beat up a bit by the Sun Devils. Gerrit Cole was sensational on Friday night and there isn't a single one of the 1,436 in attendance that would claim Cole's 124 pitch outing wasn't everything that the Bruins needed. The normally stout UCLA bullpen was beset by command issues though, either walking batters or getting behind in counts and they paid for it. The same was true for Trevor Bauer on Saturday and Rob Rasmussen on Sunday. Arizona St. is one of the best hitting teams out there not just because of their talent, but because of their patient approach. The Bruin pitching staff got beat up a bit, but there aren't many teams that wouldn't take it in a heartbeat.
So when we look at the 2010 UCLA baseball team, what do we see? There's a team that got on the best streak that the school has ever seen, but still struggles with the same problems that we expected them to have. They are limited and are not one of the best teams in the country. That said, rewind to February and be offered the chance to be a top-15 team with a very good chance at hosting a Regional with a very legitimate chance at earning a national seed. You would take it in a heartbeat.
That is where the Bruins find themselves right now. Barring a collapse, UCLA will be hosting a Regional at Jackie Robinson Stadium. They will be a #1 seed and enjoy the benefits of home field advantage. With four series remaining this year, all of which the Bruins will be favored in, they can win all four and still secure a national seed. Even threee of four may get it done. This could make their path to Omaha considerably easier. For all the bluster before the Arizona St. series and bluster after it, UCLA is still in an advantagous position and all hope is not yet lost.
The Bruins have slipped and they have disappointed us of late. The entire UCLA family, myself included, found themselves believing that this team could do the incredible. To fall from such a perch hurts, but when the things that caused such a fall are the things we already knew, pnly to push them into the background, we need to reasses. Maybe the Bruins aren't such a disappointment. Sure, they have things to improve upon, can still get hot at the right time and even reach the heights that we were dreaming of just four days ago. That said, the Bruins are what they are right now. They have formidable strengths, but holes that will likely prove to be fatal and upon reasoned reflection, that should be no surprise.