When UCLA takes to the field on Friday, they will be 55 days removed from a sweep at the hands of Arizona St., a hyped up series between two top-10 teams that was supposed to be the Bruins' chance to make a statement. On that weekend, they were supposed to prove that they were indeed an upper echelon team, but instead, the Sun Devils laid waste to the Bruins, making them look as if they were not just a level below the Sun Devils, but two or three. Now, 55 days later, UCLA can go further than they could have that weekend. They are not playing to prove they are an upper echelon team. Instead, they are playing for a spot in the Championship Series, making them one of the last two teams remaining, rarefied air beyond that of upper echelon.
If the Bruins are to get their spot in the Championship Series, they will have to beat TCU for a second time. After opening the College World Series with a convincing win over Florida, the Bruins squared off against the Horned Frogs and behind the offensive firepower of the freshmen, as well as a dominating performance by Gerrit Cole, UCLA walked away 6-3 winners. That advanced UCLA through the winner's bracket and now, UCLA can win Friday night's game and go to the Championship Series, but even if they lose, they will have another chance to beat the Horned Frogs on Saturday with the same prize at stake.
Since Monday, UCLA has practiced, spent time with family and enjoyed Omaha. They have not had to take to the Rosenblatt Stadium field, instead watching other teams play and burn up their pitching. One of those teams putting in their game time while UCLA rested was TCU, who needed a dramatic comeback to defeat Florida St. and avoid elimination. Trailing 7-2 at one point and 7-3 entering the eighth inning, TCU put up eight runs in the inning, highlighted by a Matt Curry grand slam on a 3-2, two out pitch that turned a two run deficit into a two run lead. Next up, a date with UCLA.
When UCLA and TCU faced off on Monday, it was the Bruin offense that opened up eyes in the early going. A patient approach made TCU starting pitcher Kyle Winkler work hard, throwing 60 pitches in just 2.2 innings before being taken out. The Bruins totaled six hits in the first three innings, including two home runs, and by the time the teams moved to the fourth inning, UCLA led 5-0. TCU did their best to put together a seventh inning rally, but they just couldn't get to the Bruins.
What will change when the two teams square off on Friday is that TCU will likely turn to their freshman phenom, Matt Purke. Purke, a first round pick of the Texas Rangers, has been tremendous of late and allowed just one unearned run on four hits, striking out seven and walking four to earn the win. TCU head coach Jim Schlossnagle said following his team's win over Florida St. that he would likely turn to Purke on Friday and if he does, Purke's perfect 15-0 record and 3.03 ERA will be on the line when he faces off against the Bruins.
If it is indeed Purke on the mound, the Bruins can take two things with them that gives them some hope of handing Purke his first loss. First, UCLA is a very patient team that likes to work pitchers. Not only does this help them draw walks and get into hitter's counts, but it helps them get into the opposing team's bullpen. Purke can struggle with his command, as evidenced by his throwing only 66 strikes out of 115 pitches versus Florida St. If the Bruins are patient with him, they will find themselves in hitter's counts and getting into the Horned Frogs' bullpen. The second thing working in UCLA's favor is their proficiency against left-handed pitchers, going 14-3 against them this season.
Having not played since Monday, UCLA will have a completely fresh bullpen at their disposal, giving them an advantage late in games. What the game very well could come down to, though, is defense. Florida St. committed five errors in their loss to TCU and 10 of the Horned Frogs' 11 runs were unearned. Neither UCLA nor TCU has a stellar defense so the one or two mistakes in the field could be the difference maker.
With their pitching lined up, at worst, UCLA is even on mound with TCU. There are two big questions entering the game. The first is how fresh Purke is on short rest, assuming he pitches. Usually, Purke pitches just once a week, but on Friday, he'll be pitching on a day's rest shorter than usual. Normally, it wouldn't raise too many eyebrows, but Purke has now thrown 110 innings this year, threw 115 pitches in his last start and is still a freshman. The next question is how the Bruins come out and whether the team plays like they have a game in hand or with the desperation that TCU will bring with their backs against the wall.
55 days ago, UCLA was called a fraud by some. That's an unlikely attack to be levied against the Bruins now, but now they're aiming for more and on Friday, they can leave themselves with just one more goal left to accomplish.