This week on TV: Pac-12 baseball
Pac-12 play is hitting overdrive as we hit the halfway mark of the 30-game sprint. Both Oregon schools are tussling for the driver's seat at the top, but four other teams are still within legitimate striking distance of the title. Three of those contenders are featured on Pac-12 Networks this weekend.
UCLA at Oregon (Friday at 7 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks; Saturday at 7 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks)
The first two games of this critical series in Eugene will be televised. This is a chance for the third-place Bruins (7-5) to overtake the second-place Ducks (12-3) in the loss column, and there's no doubt that they have the mound firepower to make noise at PK Park. UCLA's experienced pitching staff has been excellent, particularly in the closer's spot: David Berg's eight saves have been accompanied by a stingy 0.92 ERA.
Neither of these teams hits the cover off the baseball, but they're the top two defensive clubs in the conference. George Horton's Oregon squad, of course, makes up for its mediocre team batting average (.268) by being exceptionally good at the small facets of the offensive game: they bunt a whole lot (league-leading 51 successful sacrifices). UCLA (.252 this season) isn't what they used to be offensively, but the Bruins have walked 160 times on the year, and they should muster enough of a threat offensively to make this series extremely competitive.
[Related: Pac-12 baseball TV schedule]
Arizona at Stanford (Friday at 7 p.m. on Pac-12 Arizona/Bay Area; Sunday at 2 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks)
Contrasting winning styles are a hallmark of Pac-12 baseball, and there's a big discrepancy in the way that third-place Stanford (7-5) and fifth-place Arizona (8-7) have been successful. The Cardinal's bruising lineup loves muscling the ball out of the ballpark (Brian Ragira has hit home runs in four of his last six games), while the Wildcats' fleet-footed attack prefers pounding the ball into the ground and making a run for it. The defending national champions have stolen 78 bases already this season, easily the Pac-12's best figure.
Last season, Arizona swept Stanford in Tucson early on in a series that sparked their eventual College World Series tear. "We remember that," Cardinal catcher Wayne Taylor told me. "We'll definitely be playing with a chip on our shoulder."
This year, both clubs are hot. The Wildcats have won nine of 10 games after stumbling 0-6 out of the conference gate, while Stanford has found its stride winning nine of its past 12 games. Both teams are settling in offensively, so this one will come down to pitching. The big question: can the Cardinal muster the mound performances to contain Arizona after Mark Appel on Friday?
Washington State at California (Sunday at 2 p.m. on Pac-12 Bay Area/Washington)
It's been a disappointing year for Cal (16-20, 5-10 Pac-12), but Washington State (18-16, 5-7 Pac-12) still has NCAA tournament aspirations. The Cougars' high-powered offense leads the league in slugging percentage (.436), but they'll have to take this show on the road to Berkeley this weekend. The good news for them: Cal has dropped below USC as the Pac-12's worst pitching team. They're scuffling along with an ugly 4.83 ERA and .299 opposing batting average, and that's simply been the recipe for a disastrous eight straight losses.
The Bears' fielding percentage has improved 20 points over last season's horrid .952 mark, but unless they can find a way to stop the mound bleeding this weekend, Washington State will find themselves back over the .500 mark. The Cougars' Nick Tanielu is hitting a league-best .402. His .492 on-base percentage also leads the Pac-12, and you can bet that the third baseman is licking his chops for a chance to rake against subpar pitching.
David Lombardi has covered Pac-12 baseball since 2007. He’s a play-by-play voice and on-air reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.