UCLA began its baseball season last weekend, taking the wekend series with Minnesota at Jackie Robinson Stadium, losing the season opener in 10 innings, 6-2, but bouncing back to beat the Gophers 14-0 and 14-1.
The Bruins now head off to its first trip ever to Waco, Texas, to play Baylor this weekend.
UCLA's 2013 baseball team entered the 2013 season as a top-10 squad, a College World Series favorite and one of the top contenders for the Pac-12 crown. And nobody has batted an eye.
What was once the nation's sleeping giant, a program labeled as underachievers, is now a national power, and it all turned around in three years under UCLA coach John Savage.
In 2010, the Bruins went to the College World Series for just the third time ever and won a game in Omaha for the first time in program history en route to the Championship Series.
The 2011 season brought UCLA their first outright Pac-12 title since 1986.
Last season the Bruins won a second consecutive conference championship for the first time ever and returned to the College World Series.
With those three seasons, the Bruins moved up the national food chain. They left the underachievers label behind. They woke the sleeping giant. They became California's pre-eminent baseball program. They made being a national title contender the norm.
And 2013 should be no different.
With one of the deepest pitching staffs UCLA has had since John Savage took over (which is saying something, since Savage has built some of the nation's best pitching staffs while at UCLA), the Bruins should be right back in the hunt for a berth in Omaha. Six of UCLA's top seven pitchers from last year are back and they are joined by three of the best freshmen pitchers in the country, giving Savage enviable depth and options.
Pitching depth can't be undervalued in a quest for a national title. While All-Americans Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer earned the headlines in 2010, it was no surprise that the Bruins, with Cole and Bauer still in tow, fell short of the College World Series a year later. For all the excitement that comes with an ace or two, staffs have to go at least seven-deep to give their teams a true shot at a national championship.
Last season, UCLA had the seven they needed. Armed with a true ace in Adam Plutko, who sustained a perfect post-season record, and backed by starters Nick Vander Tuig and Zack Weiss, the Bruins had a solid weekend rotation. But UCLA also had a rising freshman in Grant Watson taking care of the Tuesday duties and strength in the bullpen, rounding out an Omaha-quality staff.
This year's staff, then, might be more loaded. It returns largely intact from a year ago, with returning pitchers accounting for 87% of the total innings thrown in 2012. It boasts Plutko the ace, Vander Tui and Watson; David Berg and Ryan Deeter were named to the Stopper of the Year Watch List; and also adds two Freshman Pitcher of the Year candidates in Hunter Virant and Cody Poteet, plus a freshman closer in James Kaprielian, who might have the highest ceiling of the three. Omaha-quality once again.
But a staff that can get you to the College World Series isn't worth much if you don't have an offense that can do the same and that is where the questions lies for the Bruins.
Questions about the offense aren't new for UCLA. With the Bruins' pitching always being good under Savage, the focus turns to the bats, and the concerns are more real than ever this year. Jeff Gelalich, Beau Amaral, Cody Keefer, Trevor Brown and Tyler Heineman have all departed for the pros, leaving the Bruins without a quintet who accounted for 70% of the team's home runs, 61% of the RBI and 62% runs in 2012.
The good news for the Bruins is that they have experienced players to fill those roles. Their entire infield played at least 30 games each last season and includes Kevin Williams (although he is out until March with a shoulder injury), Kevin Kramer and Shane Zeile, all of whom hit .280 or better a year ago. Toss in senior Cody Regis, Chris Keck, who hit .293 in 2012, and Pat Gallagher, another left-handed hitter who, like Keck, has big power potential and had a monster fall, and Savage has a problem of luxury around the infield.
The Bruins may have even more talent, albeit less proven talent, in the outfield. Eric Filia was squeezed out of the outfield a year ago by Gelalich, Amaral and Keefer, all of whom were three-year starters, but he went to the Northwoods League over the summer and hit .383, showing why scouts were so high on him. He is joined by Brian Carroll in centerfield, a speedy player who can cause havoc on the base paths and will be vital defensively with three fly-ball pitchers in the rotation. Last year's California Gatorade High School Player of the Year, Ty Moore, mans left field. As far as raw talent and athleticism goes, the UCLA outfield is full of it.
There is plenty of potential up and down the Bruins' lineup, as there usually is. The question is -- again, as it is every year -- can they make good on it because the pitching will do its job.
If the Bruins can get the offense to match their pitching, the College World Series will come calling again and UCLA will head to Omaha. But they are now not surprise guests to the party but will go to Omaha as regulars.
RANKINGS AND PRESEASON POLL
UCLA is ranked #6 in the nation by the NCAA, #2 by ESPN, and #12 by Baseball America.
UCLA was selected to finish second in the Pac-12's preseason coaches' poll. Stanford was picked to finish first while Oregon State, Oregon and Arizona rounded out the top five in that order. The remaining six teams include (in order) Arizona State, California, USC/Washington State (tie), Washington and Utah.
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