Wednesday, May 27

UCLA baseball keeps focused and calm while preparing to host highly ranked Arizona State at Jackie Robinson Stadium

Sophomore pitcher Gerrit Cole will start tonight in the first of a monumental three-game set between UCLA and Arizona State, two of the nation's top teams. Kimberly Lajcik

The stage is set.

With big, bad Arizona State in town this weekend, the national spotlight will shine down on Jackie Robinson Stadium. Two highly ranked collegiate baseball teams ““ No. 5 UCLA hosting No. 3 ASU ““­ going arm to arm, matching bat for bat.

The winner of the three-game series will become the favorite to take the Pac-10 crown. The loser will be left with thoughts of a second-place finish.

But good luck trying to convince UCLA that this weekend carries more importance than any other.

“You kind of just have to go about it the same way you’ve been going about it every week,” said sophomore right-hander Gerrit Cole, who will take the mound in tonight’s series opener.

“We have to keep that same mindset we have every single week.”

But a three-game tilt against the Sun Devils ““ long considered the premier program in college baseball ““ isn’t circled on the Bruins’ calendar?

“We’re not playing the opponent,” said junior outfielder Chris Giovinazzo, who hit a two-run moon shot in UCLA’s 4-1 victory over visiting UC Irvine Tuesday. “We’re playing the game.”

Fair enough.

It’s just another baseball series, with Arizona State (35-5, 11-4 Pac-10) attempting to hold off upstart UCLA (30-7, 7-5) in the heated Pac-10 standings.

“It’s a big weekend for us,” coach John Savage said. “But every weekend is big, every weekend is so tough in the Pac-10 that if you don’t gear up, you’re going to find yourself chasing your tail.”

The Bruins certainly don’t want to do that ““ not in front of the large crowds that are expected to flock to Robinson Stadium. UCLA, which began its season with a 22-game win streak, has seen a drastic but positive change in home attendance ““ so much so that a pair of additions have been made to the team’s stadium.

A large grandstand was put in near the right field foul pole two weeks ago. Another bleacher section was installed behind home plate, on the hill past the concourse. In all, the additional seating will enable the stadium to accommodate 650 additional fans.

That buzz you’re hearing? It’s coming from the diamond just west of the 405 Freeway.

“It’s a boost to everybody,” Cole said. “You can’t deny that seeing more people in the stands isn’t great ““ it’s a comfort; it just brings a whole new mindset to this ballpark.”

UCLA has averaged more than 1,400 fans at its last six weekend home games. The trend promises to continue tonight.

“It’s really a credit to the players,” Savage said. “They’ve really worked hard to get to where they are.”

But Savage added that there’s a difference between where they are now and where they want to be in, say, late-June. A series win against the Sun Devils would surely be a step in that direction.

“We know we’re good,” Cole said. “We know that if we play the game the way we can, it’s going to be tough to beat us.

“You definitely have to be aggressive, but that’s the case every time we come out. We have to be the aggressor and throw the first punch.”

That’s exactly what Cole (6-1, 2.89 ERA) will try to do tonight against a fast, stingy, powerful and disciplined Arizona State lineup.

The Sun Devils rank first in the conference with a .350 team batting average.

The Bruins’ 2.75 team ERA is tops in the Pac-10.

“They all stick to the same approach,” Cole said.

It sounds a lot like what UCLA has been able to do at the plate this season, doesn’t it?

“It’s very similar,” Cole said. “It’s take. Then take, take, take ““ runners in scoring position ““ and rip.”

In response, Cole will attempt to get ahead in counts and keep his distance when he has to.

“Your intensity is going to be heightened a little bit, but you’ve got to tone that down,” Cole said. “The main thing is to stick to the same approach.”

Again, it’s just UCLA v. ASU. No big deal.

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