It's amazing what one inning can do to a team's perception. Had UCLA defeated Stanford in last weekend's series finale then everyone would be building up this weekend's series against Oregon St. as a possible Pac-10 title decider. The Bruins would be listed in everyone's "who's hot" list and most of the concerns from their poor start to the season would be forgotten. Instead, the Bruins allowed the Cardinal to mount a two-out, ninth inning comeback so they are coming off of a series loss and are being asked again to make a statement that they are for real with the nation's number three team visiting Jackie Robinson Stadium this weekend.
The Beavers come into this weekend are arguably the nation's hottest team. They've lost only two games in Pac-10 play and that's after losing their first conference game of the season. Since losing that contest, Oregon St. has gone 12-1 and they haven't been given any gifts by the schedulers either. They won a series at Arizona and home to Washington St. to go along with a home sweep of Arizona St. and road sweep of Stanford to get where they are in the league this year. Most of that comes without star catcher Andrew Susac, who has been out since undergoing surgery. The Beavers have definitely proved themselves and head to Westwood this weekend full of confidence so the Bruins have a tough task ahead of them.
As tough as this weekend might be on the Bruins, they do have recent history on their side. UCLA has taken two of three from Oregon St. in each of the last two years, including an epic 16 inning game last season in Corvallis that flipped the series. The Bruins have away a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning as the Beavers forced extra innings, but great pitching, incredible defense and some questionable base running pushed the game on and on with missed chances until the Bruins won in the 16th inning. That game evened the series at one game apiece before UCLA won the three-game set on Saturday and while it will be tough for the two clubs to replicate that kind of drama this season, this weekend's series should still be more than dramatic enough.
As is the case no matter who UCLA plays, the Bruins have a chance because of their incredible starting pitching and that starts with Gerrit Cole on Friday (6 pm PDT). The junior is looking to rebound from a pair of sub-par starts, both of which resulted in losses. They pushed Cole's ERA up to 2.78 this season, although his 6.3:1 strike out to walk ratio is still as sparkling as ever. Cole tossed six innings of one-run ball against the Beavers a year ago and will need to keep Oregon St. off of the scoreboard again this season because he's going up against one of the Pac-10's best.
Sam Gaviglio entered Oregon St. as a highly touted freshman expected to become the anchor of the Beavers' pitching staff before long, but it took until he became a junior for him to live up the hype. Is he ever living up to the hype now though. Gaviglio is 7-1 with a 1.68 ERA with a .181 batting average against and a strike out to walk ration equal to Cole's. He is coming off of one of his worst starts of the year though, in which he allowed six runs, five earned, in 6.2 innings against Washington St. so he can be hit.
One man who can match Gaviglio's brilliance this season and then add to it is Trevor Bauer, who will start on Saturday (2 pm PDT) for the Bruins. The junior has been on a whole other level this season, winning National Pitcher of the Week in five of the season's nine weeks this year. That includes this week when he was acknowledged for his third consecutive complete game, a four hit, one run effort in which he struck out 17. Bauer is now 8-1 with a 1.42 ERA on the year and 127 strike outs, 23 more than the next closest pitcher in the country. He also had success against the Beavers a year ago with 7.1 shutout innings in the 16 inning thriller.
Oregon St. manager Pat Casey will send Josh Osich to the mound with the hope that he can match Bauer and it's not an unreasonable thing to ask either. While Osich hasn't been as good as Bauer or even his teammate Gaviglio this season, he's been good in his own right. He has a 3.30 ERA and proved he can hang in against a prolific offense when he held Arizona to three runs in seven innings. The redshirt junior absorbed his first loss of the season last weekend to drop to 5-1 on the year when he allowed two runs in 6.1 innings, but the Beavers were shut out.
As is always the case on Sundays (1 pm PDT), UCLA will turn to Adam Plutko on Sunday. It would be difficult to find anyone with worse luck than Plutko this season. The freshman hasn't picked up a win since his second start of the season on February 27 and it hasn't been his fault. The freshman has been bitten by bad defense behind him, poor hitting in support of him or a messy bullpen after him. As a result, he stands at just 2-3 on the season despite a 1.69 ERA and 1.90 batting average against. One of these days, you would think that Plutko will be rewarded for his spectacular pitching with a win and the Bruins are hoping that day will be this Sunday.
The Beavers have yet to announce a starter for Sunday's game so that remains a question mark, but what is not a question mark is the Oregon St. bullpen. Whenever someone comes trotting out of the bullpen, the Beavers know they are in good hands. The relievers are led by Matt Boyd and Tony Bryant, who have 17 and 18 appearances respectively, yet still have ERA's of 0.99 and 1.47. With those two, both of whom regularly throw more than an inning at a time, the Beavers can turn to their bullpen with confidence.
On the flip side is the UCLA bullpen, which must still be hurting from last weekend's blown save against Stanford. Mitchell Beacom has continued to be the go-to guy in the bullpen, putting out fires left and right, but the rest of the arms will need to get the job done this weekend. That includes Nick Vander Tuig, whose confidence and poise will really be tested going forward as the freshman who has been knocked around some will be put in high pressure situations. That includes this weekend so the Bruins hope he can build off of Tuesday's save and wrap games up like he did then.
This weekend marks an opportunity for UCLA to make a major statement. With the number three team in town, the Bruins can prove they are capable of beating any team in the country and also move right up by the top of the Pac-10 standings. The Bruins enter the weekend 1.5 games behind the Beavers in the conference so a series win will put them just a half-game back to really put the pressure on Oregon St. the rest of the season.
This weekend will be big for the Bruins in the Pac-10 title race, for resume purposes and in terms of perception so head on out to the ballpark and cheer on the Bruins. 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 Tim Wilhelm are back in the booth this weekend and giving you the play by play online all weekend.