BASEBALL: Cougs face urgent task vs. UCLA

THE COUGARS BASEBALL team, who has struggled in the field this season, have precious little room for errors of any kind when the UCLA Bruins visit Bailey-Brayton Field this weekend.

UCLA, ranked 24th by Baseball America, has one of the most dominant pitching staffs in college baseball. Two-time All-Americans Trevor Bauer and Gerritt Cole are joined in the starting pitching rotation by freshman phenom Adam Plutko.

"It'll be a challenge," WSU coach Donnie Marbut summed up.

The post-season hopes of the Cougars (12-12) may be in dire jeopardy if UCLA (14-10) pulls off a three-game sweep. That would leave WSU at 1-8 in Pacific-10 Conference play one-third of the way through the league schedule. UCLA is tied for first with Arizona State and California at 5-1.

The odds facing Washington State this weekend are steep. After Cole (3-2, 2.06) throws Friday and Bauer (5-1, 1.46) takes the mound Saturday, the Bruins come back with Plutko (2-3, 1.85) on Sunday. All three are tall right-handers. Cole was a first-round draft pick out of high school; Bauer may go in the first round this June; and Plutko was picked in the sixth round last year.

In the latest NCAA Division I statistics (through Sunday), Bauer was leading the nation in strikeouts (82) for the second straight year. As a staff, UCLA ranked first in strikeouts per nine innings (10.9), first in hits allowed per nine innings (5.83) and fourth in earned run average (1.99).

By comparison, WSU ranked 127th out of 292 teams with 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings, 259th with 11.42 hits allowed per nine innings and 230th in ERA at 5.62.

Obviously, runs figure to be at a premium for the Cougars this weekend. But the same may be true for the Bruins, who rank among the nation's least productive teams with a .244 batting average, four home runs and 4.1 runs per game. UCLA has no .300 hitters; WSU has four.

After Tuesday's four-homer, 11-6 win at Gonzaga (ranked 24th by Collegiate Baseball), the Cougars are batting .287 with 16 home runs and 5.8 runs per game. Those numbers drop substantially in Pac-10 play, and WSU ranks last in the conference in ERA and fielding percentage (.959).

Wednesday's game at Seattle University (a late addition to the schedule) was cancelled due to a dismal weather forecast, so the Cougars gained an extra day to focus on UCLA.

Chad Arnold, rounding into form after elbow problems delayed his season debut, switches spots with fellow senior James Wise by moving up to the Saturday spot in the rotation this weekend.

Senior Adam Conley (4-2, 3.38) remains the Friday starter. After a sensational start, Conley has been roughed up a bit lately.

"He's facing better competition," Marbut noted. "He's kind of ‘lost' a couple pitches. He hasn't commanded his change-up or his breaking ball."

Easy games are far and few between in the Pac-10. Six teams are ranked in Baseball America's Top 25, and the magazine projects seven Pac-10 teams will qualify for the NCAA tournament.

UCLA, the College World Series runner-up to South Carolina last season, is one of the seven teams being forecast to play in the tournament. WSU, a tournament qualifier the past two years, is on the outside looking in right now.

"Nothing's gelled together," Marbut said.

Marbut continues to question his team's intensity at times. He was disturbed when his team fell behind 8-0 last Friday against No. 11 Stanford; delighted when the Cougars rallied to win that game 10-8; disgusted when "we got annihilated" in a 22-3 loss last Saturday; then stayed peeved when the Cougars lost the Stanford series by bowing 4-3 Sunday.

"We just lacked urgency (Sunday)," Marbut said. "I just thought we were going to come out with that fighting mentality."

Friday's game with UCLA is set for 5:30 p.m. Root (formerly Fox Sports Northwest) televises Saturday's contest live at 1 p.m. Sunday's first pitch is set for noon.

The Cougars play Gonzaga at home next Tuesday at 5:30 p.m., then hit the road the following two weekends to face No. 5 Arizona State and No. 19 Oregon State.

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