CBB Column: ASU vs. UCLA Series Debate

UCLAStadium Leading up to the postseason, one of the most anticipated conference battles is this weekend’s Pac-10 tilt between #3 Arizona State and #9 UCLA. If you haven’t been following each team this season, we’re here to help.

I contacted The State Press Sports Editor Nick Kosmider and Bruins Nation Baseball Author Ryan Rosenblatt to debate on why their teams will take the much anticipated matchup at Jackie Robinson Stadium this weekend. Both writers are usually updating fans of each team via Twitter with insight during games, so follow them @ryeUCLAbaseball and @nickkosmider. They go over everything there is to know about this series:

 

@TheCBB: Ryan, first off, your weekend rotation is the most highly regarded in the nation, with Cole, Bauer and Rasmussen each dominating on the mound (Each are in the Top 20 nationally in K/9). Talk about them for a bit.

Rosenblatt2 @ryeUCLAbaseball: The UCLA pitching staff? Where to start? How about good. Damn good works too. As does one of the best in the nation. Yeah, those descriptions would all be accurate, just as impressive, nasty and dominating would be.

Let’s see. UCLA’s 2.44 ERA is second in the country, just behind Texas with a huge gap separating number two UCLA and number three Oregon. The Bruins allow 6.5 hits per nine innings. In case you were curious, that’s the best in the country. Oh, their 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings are also the best in the country by 1.2 strikeouts. The numbers two through 31 teams in the category nationally are separated by 1.2 strikeouts.

On Friday night there’s Gerrit Cole, a right-hander who was a first round pick of the Yankees out of high school. He throws in the mid-90’s with ease and when he wants it, can hit 99 mph. He is 6-1 with a 2.89 ERA and his 12.42 strikeouts per nine innings is the best the Pac-10 has to offer.

Things get so much easier for opponents on Saturday, though. I mean, they only have to deal with the reigning National Freshman Pitcher of the Year, Trevor Bauer, who is 6-2 with a 2.57 ERA. Oh, then on Sunday you get Rob Rasmussen, who is 6-1 with a 2.85 ERA and has one of the better breaking balls you’ll see.

That’s the UCLA weekend staff. Good luck with it. I’m glad I get to check them out from the stands and not the batter’s box.

NickKosmider @nickkosmider: Undoubtedly, the UCLA pitching staff will be a tough challenge, but with the No. 2 hitting team in the conference (just a point behind Arizona at .345) it’s one ASU should be up to.

Everything offensively for the Sun Devils starts at the top of the order with No. 1 and 2 hitters Drew Maggi and Zack MacPhee. When they get on base, which they do often with on-base percentages of .489 and .544, respectively, (good enough for fourth and first in the Pac) they wreak havoc. Maggi (23) and MacPhee (14) are first and second in the conference in stolen bases. MacPhee leads the conference in runs scored with Maggi in fifth.

At 5 feet 10 inches, MacPhee, who became a switch hitter this season after batting exclusively from the right side as a freshman last year, has show surprising power, as he is second in the conference in RBI (45) and fourth in home runs (7).

What makes M&M’s ability to get on base even more dangerous is the batter of three-hole hitter Kole Calhoun, one that has been red hot of late. Calhoun has launched four home runs in the past 10 games and his hitting at nearly .500 during that stretch. Named to the All-College World Series team last season, Calhoun is starting to show why he earned the moniker Mayor of Omaha last June.

The middle of the order has been stepping up of late with cleanup batter Riccio Torrez (.366, 7 HR, 33 RBI) and No. 5 Zach Wilson (.375, 4 HR, 36 RBI) both in the midst of hot streaks.

Nobody in the lineup hits below .266 with only three guys clipping below .300.

Clearly, it’s hard to match the Bruins on the mound with their trio rolling through the Pac-10 in such dominating fashion. They will be, without doubt, the toughest test ASU hitters have faced so far this season.

To talk about ASU’s pitching staff, what first must be discussed is who’s missing. That who is Josh Spence, a preseason All-American and third-round selection of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (God, that’s a horrible name) who decided to put the pros on hold and return to anchor the Sun Devil rotation. Spence’s pitch count this season: 0. Due to a lingering problem in his pitching arm, described only by the team as "arm soreness," Spence is yet to throw. ASU has done OK without him (34-5) but his absence could be magnified come playoff time.

With that said, Friday’s starter, junior Seth Blair (7-0, 3.08 ERA) has done a serviceable job in the No. 1 spot. Blair won’t overpower you with his fastball, but he is very good at spotting his locations and pitching to contact with a solid defense behind him. He has improved mightily in his last two starts and seems to be catching his groove.

Saturday’s starter is junior Merrill Kelly (8-0, 3.75), a transfer from Yavapai College who has been a big surprise for coach Tim Esmay and Co. In his very first start as a Sun Devil earlier this season, Kelly loaded the bases with nobody out, only to end the inning unscathed. He’s been the rotations best at working his way out of jams, maintaining solid composure. Oh, and he has a nasty changeup.

Sunday’s starter Jake Borup (8-1, 3.58) is a 22-year-old sophomore who has returned from a Mormon mission and filled in well. He has often been a victim of first-inning struggles, but after that he usually cruises.

Rosenblatt2 @ryeUCLAbaseball: The Sun Devils can definitely hit, but I think this match-up between the UCLA pitchers and ASU hitters favors the Bruins. I say that not so much from a "UCLA’s pitchers are better than ASU’s hitters" standpoint, but actually from a match-up perspective.

As the numbers indicate, the Bruin pitchers can really fire it in there and rack up strikeout after strikeout. With that type of pitching, the best way to beat it is with the long ball and that’s not what the Sun Devils do best. I’m not saying that the ASU hitters don’t have power because they do, but it’s not overwhelming power like we saw from the Sun Devils in past years.

The Sun Devils are going to beat you by putting the ball in the gaps, by running wild on the base paths and by stringing hits together. That’s not the best formula to beat the UCLA pitchers. Not that the Bruin pitchers can’t be beaten like that and if any team is going to beat UCLA like that it’s ASU, but it’s not the best way to do it so I think that the match-up of styles favors the Bruins.

NickKosmider @nickkosmider: It’s funny that everyone keeps talking about ASU’s lack of home runs when the Sun Devils actually lead the conference in dingers. Sure, they don’t have the Brett Wallaces and Ike Davises going yard 25 times a season, but everyone in the lineup is capable of contributing a long ball from time to time and ASU has hit 11 homers in its last four games.

But I think the X-factor in the series will be the man behind the plate, sophomore Austin Barnes. Never a backstop in high school, Barnes was converted to the position during the middle of last season. This season he was expected to share time there with junior college transfer Xorge Carillo, but an arm injury has kept Carillo out much of the season.

In what figures to be a very close series, Barnes will need to be a threat to throw runners out, something that has been a bit of a weak spot for him this season. Also, his bat has been suspect for much of the year, but he has turned it on recently, including a big bases clearing double on Tuesday in a win over San Francisco that nearly left the yard. If he can be a wall behind the plate, keep some runners from advancing and give ASU some quality at-bats, he could prove to be the difference.

Rosenblatt2 @ryeUCLAbaseball: So they lead the conference in homers. Big deal. I mean, seriously, nobody in the Pac-10 hits homers. UCLA is averaging a whopping two homers every three games and they’re second in the conference in dingers. ASU can hit homers, but that’s not what powers this offense. They don’t look at the long ball to get their offense going, but rather a nice addition to their offense and that’s something that plays into UCLA’s hands from a match-up standpoint.

When I think about the x-factor for UCLA, I actually am thinking along the same lines as you. It’s how Steve Rodriguez handles the Arizona St. running game. Rodriguez is a good defensive catcher, but not an incredible one. The Sun Devils run wild on the bases and the UCLA pitchers, for all their throwing over, aren’t quick to the plate. Rob Rasmussen is a tough guy to get a jump on, but that’s about it when it comes to the pitching staff. Rodriguez needs to be exceptional behind the plate this weekend and keep the ASU running game in check.

When it comes to individual hitters, I look at Tyler Rahmatulla (.363, 5 HR, 31 RBI) as someone who needs to have a big series. The sophomore got off to a great start and while he’s been solid of late, he needs to find great again this weekend. The UCLA lineup lacks power and he needs to be able to drive runners in when he gets the chance. A homer would be nice, but consistent line drives that can find a gap and get the runners going is what the offense is really looking for. Someone is going to have to be the big man in the UCLA lineup and Rahmatulla is the best candidate.

NickKosmider @nickkosmider: In a tight series like this one is likely to be, coaching will no doubt play an integral role. ASU’s skipper Tim Esmay has garnered a lot of support in his first season on the bench, due in large part to his relationship with players. After longtime manager Pat Murphy resigned under fire just before the start of the season, it was going to take someone familiar with pressures and expectations of playing for a program like ASU to keep order. Esmay has done that by taking a direct and understanding approach with the players. The head games that those around the program say existed during Murphy’s tenure are nowhere to be found in Tempe now. Esmay was a player for ASU in the 80’s and knows what Sun Devil baseball is all about. If ASU makes a good run in Omaha, we may see the interim label in front of his name disappear.

Rosenblatt2 @ryeUCLAbaseball: Esmay has done a tremendous job with the Sun Devils this year. To take over when he did in the situation he did and to keep things humming along without Josh Spence has been incredible.

I think it will be interesting to see if the UCLA hitters can muster anything against the Arizona St. pitching staff. The Devils can pitch, even without Spence, and the Bruins have struggled to hit of late. Whether or not the UCLA offense can get anything going is pretty independent of anything the Devils can do though because the issues UCLA has to overcome are things that have been a problem for weeks.

The Bruins have left runner after runner on base and need to cash their chances in if they’re to win. A bit hit wouldn’t hurt either and odds are that it comes from Rahmatulla or Dean Espy, each of which will be the heart of the UCLA lineup. Some errors or a lack of range from the Devils wouldn’t hurt either.

NickKosmider @nickkosmider: ASU hitters had been struggling with some of the same RISP problems, but seemed to break out of the funk last weekend against Washington and this week against San Francisco. Both these teams are supremely talented, providing the makings of a fantastic series. As Esmay said tonight, it will come down to which team can make the fewest mistakes.

@ryeUCLAbaseball: Ain’t that the truth, Nick. If the Bruins can take this weekend’s series, they’re a game and a half back with a MUCH easier finishing schedule Rosenblatt2 than the Sun Devils and looking good to track them down for the conference title. Even so, you look back at last Sunday’s contest and errors led to three unearned runs in a two run loss to Arizona so the Bruins really could be just a game and a half back. Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes. Whenever two teams this good match-up, mistakes usually make up the difference.

My feeling on this series is that it does to Sunday knotted up at a game apiece. Rob Rasmussen gives UCLA the pitching edge, but the Bruins don’t have the same bats at ASU. I’m leaning picking a UCLA series win solely on the basis of home field. If the series were in Tempe, I’d be picking the Sun Devils. Watch Sunday go to the eighth inning all tied up in a low-scoring affair after the Bruins have left a dozen men on base, but finally they come through with a clutch hit and Dan Klein closes the door in the ninth. You know, or it’s a blow out in either direction. What the hell do I know?

NickKosmider @nickkosmider: I, too, think this bad boy will be decided on Sunday. That game will come down to how Jake Borup handles the early part of the contest. With their bats the Sun Devils are almost always able to erase first-inning deficits that seem to follow Borup like the Grim Reaper. With UCLA’s pitching, though, having to make a comeback won’t be an easy proposition. If Borup struggles, look for freshman Brady Rodgers, who has been stellar this season to make an appearance.

I like the Sun Devils taking the rubber match, getting a couple clutch hits from their leaders Maggi and MacPhee. Winning the series would put ASU 3 1/2 ahead of the Bruins and a team that has won three straight Pac-10 titles knows how to put the hammer down when it matters the most and I expect the same this weekend. But hey, what the hell do I know?

@theCBB: Thanks guys for your contributions. Should be a hell of a series.