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Pitcher problems, tough competition spell trouble ahead for UCLA baseball

Junior right-hander Nate Leibold walks off the field while coach John Savage waits for a pitcher to come from the bullpen on the mound. (Darlene Sanzon/Daily Bruin)

By Kai Dizon

April 2, 2024 11:07 a.m.

It’s been one step forward and two steps back all season.

After the Bruins won their previous two conference series in Westwood, Arizona swept UCLA in Tucson this past weekend.

“We win as a team, and we lose as a team,” said sophomore right-hander Michael Barnett. “The end result wasn’t what we wanted.”

Midway through the regular season, UCLA baseball sits at 10-15 and is tied for last in the Pac-12 with a 4-8 conference record. The Bruins also hold the worst overall and conference run differential among Pac-12 teams.

And the gauntlet is still to come.

UCLA has yet to play Oregon, Oregon State and Utah, which rank first, second and third in the conference, respectively. Additionally, nearly two-thirds of UCLA’s remaining 27 games are set to be played on the road – where the Bruins haven’t recorded a victory.

After recording the win last week against USC, Barnett once again gave UCLA a chance to come away with a win following a loss in game one of the series.

The Lafayette, California, local had arguably the best outing of his career against the Wildcats – allowing just one earned run over seven innings. However, Barnett’s performance only highlighted how shallow UCLA’s bullpen is.

With setup man sophomore right-hander Cody Delvecchio sidelined by a right flexor strain sustained in Thursday’s game, coach John Savage gave the ball to closer graduate student right-hander Rashad Ruff following Barnett’s quality start.

The Coppin State transfer was saddled with a walk-off loss after being unable to keep Arizona scoreless in his second inning of work.

The next day, Savage again gave the ball to Ruff after the Bruins scored five runs in the top of the eighth to shrink the Wildcats’ lead to one.

This time, it was Ruff’s fifth inning of work – the 12th inning of the ballgame – when the wheels fell off.

In a scene eerily similar to his blown save against California on March 10, Ruff allowed a walk-off home run – after multiple innings in relief – to cap the Bruins’ sweep at the hands of a conference rival.

Despite appearing in ten of the Bruins’ first 16 games to start the season, junior right-hander Nate Leibold hasn’t appeared since March 10. Redshirt junior right-hander Chris Aldrich – who made his season debut on March 17 after an undisclosed injury to start the year – didn’t appear in the series with Arizona.

Sophomore right-hander Finn McIlroy, who began the year as UCLA’s Saturday starter, has missed three consecutive starts after being scratched from the March 16 game with elbow soreness.

On March 22, Savage said he wasn’t expecting any pitchers to return soon besides freshman right-hander Owen Egan – who was tagged with the loss Thursday.

The first of UCLA’s remaining 15 road games begins Tuesday against Loyola Marymount. Despite throwing 21 pitches in relief on Saturday, freshman right-hander Luke Rodriguez remains the probable starter.

Last week, Rodriguez failed to make it out of the second inning and was charged with four earned runs against UC Santa Barbara. Outside of that game, however, Rodriguez owns a 2.41 ERA across 18.2 innings pitched.

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