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WSU BASEBALL: Cougars Open Critical Series With UCLA, Gerrit Cole

Gerrit Cole will take the hill tonight for UCLA against the WSU baseball team. He leads one of the most fearsome college baseball pitching staffs in the entire country.
Gerrit Cole will take the hill tonight for UCLA against the WSU baseball team. He leads one of the most fearsome college baseball pitching staffs in the entire country.

Programming note: Feel free to use this as a game thread tonight if you're following the game online.

The UCLA Bruins -- ranked anywhere between 16th and 24th depending on which poll you like best -- head north to Pullman for what is a crucial series for the WSU Cougars, who are reeling after a 1-5 start to conference play.

Here are the probable pitchers, game times and broadcast info:

WSU Probable UCLA Probable TV?
Friday, 5:30 p.m. LH Adam Conley (4-2, 3.38 ERA, 46 K, 48 IP) RH Gerrit Cole (3-2, 2.06 ERA, 57 K, 48 IP) Webcast
Saturday, 1 p.m. RH Chad Arnold (0-2, 5.40 ERA, 9 K, 11 2/3 IP) RH Trevor Bauer (5-1, 1.46 ERA, 82 K, 55 2/3 IP) Root Sports
Sunday, noon RH Jame Wise (3-3, 5.17, 35 K, 38 1/3 IP) RH Adam Plutko (2-3, 1.85 ERA, 39 K, 43 2/3 IP) Webcast


The Cougs have made a living off of being resilient the last couple of years, whether repeatedly coming back on opponents with late-inning heroics or digging out of a 15-10 start last season to be a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. One could argue that last season turned when the Cougs improbably took two of three against No. 1 Arizona State at home.

Could this be a similar sort of weekend for WSU?

The Bruins, while not ranked No. 1, provide a similarly stiff challenge for the Cougs. ASU waltzed into Pullman last year with one of the top offensive attacks in the nation. This UCLA team is more or less the opposite: The Bruins feature one of the top 3-man rotations in the entire country, and that could potentially spell trouble for the Cougs.

UCLA is led by Gerrit Cole, who will start tonight's game. Never heard of him? Here's a little snippet from ESPN's scouting guy, Keith Law:

UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole showed big league stuff Friday night, throwing six perfect innings before Georgia rallied in the seventh. Cole's performance, coupled with his size, athleticism and delivery, cemented his status as the top college arm in this draft -- and it illuminated many of the reasons he compares favorably to Stephen Strasburg of theWashington Nationals.

Yes, they said Stephen Strasburg, perhaps the greatest pitching prospect in baseball history. Then, there's this from Baseball Prospectus:

Summation: Cole is the best pitcher in the collegiate ranks, and capable of pitching in a major-league rotation as of yesterday. He wears his well-above-average arsenal well, with the delivery and mechanics to log heavy innings while maintaining his stuff; Cole can miss bats with all four of his pitches. The day Cole enters the professional ranks is the day he becomes the best pitching prospect in baseball, and given the overall maturity of his arsenal, his stay in the minors should be very brief. OFP: 68; future ace at the major league level.

So ... yeah. Cole's awesome. It wouldn't be the end of the world, though, but for this little nugget: Everyone else who comes after him is really, really good, too:

UCLA's pitching staff has posted a 2.06 ERA, the lowest mark among Pac-10 teams. The Bruins also lead the Pac-10 with 259 strikeouts and a .188 opponent batting average. UCLA's pitchers are atop the conference in strikeouts per nine innings (10.7) and hits allowed per nine innings (5.84). The Bruins have hurled six shutouts and limited the opposition to five hits or fewer in 13 of 24 games this season.

Anyone can see how that would be a challenge for any team, but it presents a particular challenge for WSU: As we detailed earlier this week, the Cougs' offense has been simply atrocious against quality competition. Cal's generally considered to have the second-best rotation in the league behind UCLA, and the Bears shut out WSU for two games before finally allowing three runs in the finale. And if you'd like to be depressed further, you can note that this basically the same UCLA pitching staff that took two of three against WSU to finish the regular season last year, holding the Cougs to one run in each loss.

The main issue is this: The Cougars strike out a lot and aren't particularly adept at drawing walks, and they always struggle with strikeout staffs with overpowering arms that pound the strike zone. Arizona, which swept WSU last year, comes to mind on that front.

Of course, the Cougars always play better at home, and maybe they can get a little bit of that Bailey-Brayton home cooking going on this weekend. They're going to need it, because the Bruins are just a bad matchup coming at the worst possible time. If the Cougs can't somehow figure out a way to take two out of three this weekend, their postseason hopes will be hanging by a thread, even with lighter conference competition coming up.

At the very least, if you're any kind of baseball fan and you're in Pullman, you'd be crazy not to head out to Bailey-Brayton tonight, if only to get the closest, cheapest view you're ever going to get of Cole. He's going to be the No. 1 pick in the MLB draft, and he's probably going to be on a major league roster a year from now. And if Adam Conley can return to some kind of form, it should be one heck of a duel. I know I'll be watching intently on the webcast.