Four games into the 2011 baseball season UCLA is still undefeated. The Bruins opened up the season with a three-game set at home against San Francisco and despite an offense that didn't click all weekend they came away with a sweep. A Tuesday night game pushed the Bruins' record to 4-0 on the season and got their offense going when five first inning runs keyed a 9-0 win over Pepperdine. That game came a day after the Bruins' held firm at number two in most top 25 polls, but did move up to number one in the NCBWA poll.
How the Bruins hit is almost inconsequential nowadays. As long as they can find a run at some point in the nine innings they're in good shape because the pitching has been unbelievable. In 36 innings this season, UCLA pitchers have allowed only one unearned run on 17 hits and have struck out 44. Everyone knew Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer would be good, but the Bruins have also gotten shutout performances from Adam Plutko and Scott Griggs in starter roles and impressive relief appearances from Nick Vander Tuig, Mitchell Beacom, Zack Weiss while another trio of pitchers put zeros on the scoreboard on Tuesday.
This weekend the Bruins welcome San Jose St. to Jackie Robinson Stadium for three games. The Spartans usually one of the weaker teams from the WAC, a conference that doesn't have a ton to hang its hat on outside of Fresno St. and occasionally, Hawaii. This season though, the Spartans are off to a hot start. Sure, San Jose St. hasn't played any great teams, but they're 4-0, just like the Bruins. Also like the Bruins, the Spartans have racked up their wins on the back of great pitching and enter the weekend with a 2.05 team ERA.
As was the case last weekend, mother nature is trying her hardest to derail the Bruins' plans. Last weekend UCLA had to move their Friday and Saturday games up to beat rain later in the day and that's the case again this week. Friday's series opener has been pushed up from 6 pm PST to 1 pm PST and Saturday's game is in danger with rain in the forecast, but the Bruins and Spartans will play if mother nature allows it.
When UCLA opens up the series on Friday (1 pm PST) they will be hoping to get a performance from Gerrit Cole similar to the one he gave them last weekend, although that is setting an awfully high bar. In the season opener last week Cole struck out 11 and allowed only four hits in a complete game shutout and maybe most impressive was that he did it on only 101 pitches. The junior right-hander will be opposed by San Jose St.'s ace, a senior right-hander named Blake McFarland. A year ago, McFarland went 7-4 with a 3.62 ERA and he showed an ability to go deep into games with three complete games, but that's to be expected from a guy who's a big 6'5'' 230 lbs. Last weekend, McFarland only got 4.2 innings out of his start, but only allowed one run and did strike out five.
If mother nature cooperates and the Bruins and Spartans can play on Saturday it will be a match-up of juniors with UCLA throwing a right-hander and San Jose St. a left-hander. Trevor Bauer struck out 10 for UCLA last weekend and allowed just one unearned run on two hits in 7.2 innings to pick up the win for UCLA. Dominating performances like that are to be expected from Bauer who has made a name for himself somewhat because of his unusual training and preparation methods, but more so for embarrassing hitters for two seasons and now one start in his Bruin career. For the Spartans it will be Roberto Padilla getting the nod and like McFarland, Padilla has success in a shorter stint last weekend, but Padilla's outing came out of the bullpen. The junior went 4.1 innings and he struck out six in that time without allowing a run to pick up the win.
Wrapping up the series for UCLA on Sunday will be the freshman Adam Plutko. In his first collegiate appearance last weekend Plutko didn't show any nerves whatsoever, allowing just two hits and striking out four in six shutout innings to earn the win. Plutko's velocity wasn't as high as it has been before with his fastball sitting at 88-89 mph and topping out at 92 mph, but the freshman showed great command in moving the ball inside, outside, up and down, as well as comfort in throwing his off-speed pitches in a few unusual counts. Like UCLA, San Jose St. will turn to a right-hander on Sunday, but unlike Plutko, the Spartans' starter is a junior. As is the case with all San Jose St. probable starters, Andy Hennessy didn't pitch too deep into the game last weekend, lasting just 4.2 innings and allowing five hits in that time isn't sparkling, but he made it through his start without allowing a single run so he did his job. With just four career starts it's not expected that he go deep into the game and with an ERA over nine last year, he's not exactly a statistical dream for San Jose St.
While San Jose St. has gotten the job done on the bump so far this season, the same can't be same for the Spartans at the plate. Four games and four wins indicate that they've done enough with the bats thus far, but it likely won't be enough going forward. Through four games the Spartans are hitting .212 and facing the UCLA pitching staff is unlikely to help that. One place that the Spartans have been active is on the basepaths where they have stolen four bags in seven attempts and with just two errors so far they've shown they can catch the ball just fine.
For the Bruins at the plate, the key will be to continue with the approach they took to the plate on Tuesday night. UCLA only picked up nine hits to get their nine runs, but were patient in drawing eight walks and a hit by pitch. Getting Beau Amaral and Tyler Rahmatulla going would be huge for the Bruins who will need production from the lead off and number three spots, although to be fair it is very early in the season and Amaral is banged up. For now, UCLA can probably make due with them struggling a bit, especially when Jeff Gelalich is hitting .417 with a double and triple already. What the Bruins have done very well in the early going is steal bases where they've stolen nine already on 11 attempts.
Tickets to a game are $7 for adults, $5 for children and free for Wooden Club cardholders. For those of you looking to follow along this weekend, GameTracker will have it and you can get all the in-game updates, along with links and other information, especially weather and schedule updates, on my UCLA baseball twitter. John Ramey and Co. will be back in the booth this season and giving you the play by play online all weekend. The 2011 season is upon us and baseball is ready to step to the forefront again, hopefully in front of crowds similar to the second half of last season, which pushed UCLA into the top 50 in the nation in attendance for the first time in school history.