The UCLA Bruin baseball team (13-4, 3-0 Pac-12) welcomes the Arizona State Sun Devils (11-10, 3-0 Pac-12) to Jackie Robinson Stadium this weekend with the series getting underway tonight at 7:00 pm PT. Finals week concludes today and UCLA did not have a midweek game this week. Will UCLA benefit from having a Tuesday off or will the finals’ week hangover sting the Bruins this weekend?
UCLA is ranked between #12 and #17 in the national polls and are coming off a sweep of the Washington State Cougars to open Pac-12 play. The Bruins are tied atop the conference with #1 ranked Oregon State, the Washington Huskies, and the Sun Devils.
Arizona State, in a bit of a surprise, swept the Oregon Ducks in Phoenix last weekend, but, were soundly beaten at home by UNLV in Tuesday’s midweek contest, killing their momentum. Still, the Devils took three from a Duck squad that had only lost four games before last weekend. Make no mistake, ASU will be an upgrade in competition over WSU for UCLA this weekend.
The Sun Devils are one of the Pac-12’s blue blood programs, winners of five national championships, all between 1965 and 1981. And ASU has put a legion of good, great, and some legendary players into Major League Baseball, including Barry Bonds, Reggie Jackson, Dustin Pedroia, Bob Horner, Rick Monday, Donnie Hill (R.I.P.), and the Bando brothers. And, if you remember Sal and Chris, you’d recognize a lot more guys from your 70s baseball card collection that you had no idea ever played at Arizona State.
The Sun Devils have only missed the postseason twice in this millenium, but one of those years was last season. The other was 2012. Picked to finish 8th in the Pac-12 this season by the conference’s coaches, ASU seemed to be headed that way before the surprising series sweep last weekend. Which team will the Bruins get? The one that was 8-9 eight days ago, or the one that is 3-0 in the Pac-12?
No matter what, public enemy number one for the Bruins this weekend will be Sun Devil junior center fielder, Gage Canning, who has more hits (43) than anyone in the nation. Look at this stat line:
.494, 87 AB, 20 R, 43 H, 9 2B, 8 3B, 2 HR, 20 RBI, .851 SLG, 11 BB, .550 OBP, 4 SB
Eye-popping numbers for sure. But Arizona State’s team batting average is .305, so you know that there are plenty of other players that can hurt you. Spencer Torkelson, for one. Not only is the freshman first baseman hitting .292, but he already has ten (!) home runs on the season, tied for 4th in the nation. Further helping the cause are sophomore catcher, Lyle Lin, hitting .375 with two home runs, and sophomore second baseman Carter Aldrete, hitting .301.
The Sun Devils will send junior right hander Sam Romero (1-0, 3.91 ERA) to the mound to face the Bruins. Romero started the season in the bullpen, getting a save in his first appearance, and appearing in relief two more times. He has started Arizona State’s last three Friday night games, getting a win against Oklahoma State and no decisions against UNC Wilmington and Oregon. More importantly for the Sun Devils is that they have won each game that Romero has started.
Although it shows as three wins in the win/loss column, UCLA’s victories last week against a lesser Cougar team were anything, but easy. The Bruins were down after seven and a half innings in Saturday’s and Sunday’s games, rallying in the bottom half of the 8th in both to win. In the Friday game, the Bruins allowed two runs in the 9th and retired the last batter with the tying run on second base. Close calls, each game.
They’ll need to be better this weekend to get the series win and it will all start with Jake Bird (1-0, 0.86 ERA) taking the mound for the Bruins tonight. Bird has four starts on the season, but only one win, the season opener against Portland. Aside from the victory over the Pilots, none of Bird’s starts have been smooth, with the UCLA defense letting Jake down on more than one occasion, leading to unearned runs. Last weekend in the no-decision against Washington State, Bird allowed a few runs early on, before settling down in the middle innings.
UCLA will need to play better defense than it did last weekend. In an uncharacteristically bad series for UCLA in the field, the Bruins committed five errors against WSU, who committed none. Arizona State’s bats will punish a team that gives up free base runners like the Bruins did last weekend.
UCLA has four players batting over the .330 mark, Michael Toglia, Jeremy Ydens, Jake Hirabayashi, and Jack Stronach. Toglia needed to step up and be a big hitter for the Bruins this season, and he has done just that so far. Ydens, Hirabayashi, and Stronach have been pleasant surprises for UCLA. Those four, as well as Chase Strumpf and Daniel Amaral, have on-base percentages over .400.
After only one television appearance in 17-plus games so far this season, UCLA will finally have a series televised from start to finish. Yes, every Bruin baseball game this weekend will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks. If you get the Pac-12 Networks, tune in! If not, email Larry Scott and tell him how he has screwed up by not closing a deal with DirecTV.
If, for whatever reason, you cannot tune in, you can still follow listening to Tim Wilhelm via UCLA streaming/online audio or follow along with live game statistics.
This figures to be a competitive and fun series. I think that the teams are going to split the first two games (Saturday’s battle of the freshmen starting pitchers should be fun), with the series likely going to the winner of the Sunday contest. UCLA is TBA for that game; Arizona State is starting a senior who has started for two plus years. I give ASU the advantage and predict the Sun Devils take the series, in a mild upset, as UCLA nurses a slight finals’ week hangover.