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Eric Sorenson | D1Baseball.com | December 12, 2019

How UCLA baseball can bounce back from last season's early exit

Michigan shocks UCLA to advance to the CWS, 4-2

Sometimes it’s easy to forget about the No. 1 team in the country, unless that team makes it to Omaha or wins the national title. I mean, what do 2000 South Carolina, 2002 and 2003 Florida State, 2007 Vanderbilt, 2014 Oregon State and the 2019 UCLA team have in common? 

They were all No. 1 overall national seeds going into the postseason but failed to make it to Omaha. That doesn’t mean they weren’t great teams. Hell, look at that 2007 Vanderbilt squad, it lost to Michigan in the regionals despite having players like David Price, Casey Weathers, Pedro Alvarez and Ryan Flaherty. That’s one of the greatest collections of college ballplayers of all time, but they couldn’t get to Omaha. 

That is the same fate that befell last year’s Bruins when that same Michigan program came to Westwood and pulled off a stunning super regional upset. 

That Bruin squad was loaded. They never lost a single weekend series all season long until that final weekend against the Wolverines and held onto the No. 1 spot in the polls for 12 weeks. And as you would expect, plenty of talent left the program following that season, including sluggers like Michael Toglia, Chase Strumpf, Ryan Kreidler, Jake Pries and Jeremy Ydens and top starting pitchers Ryan Garcia and Jack Ralston. They were part of a nation-high 13 MLB draft picks from last June.

But as I like to say in a lot of these fall reports, don’t shed too many tears for head coach John Savage and his staff. The 2020 Bruins will still have plenty of future pro players on the diamond and on the mound. Sure, don’t expect them to win every weekend series this coming spring like they did last year, but if the fall workouts have proven one thing it’s that this program can sustain a lot of losses and still come back strong the following season. 

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Remember when the Bruins lost Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer off that 2011 team? Well they didn’t fold the tents, putting together back-to-back College World Series trips in 2012 and a national title in 2013.

As their mantra goes: New team, same program. UCLA will be back again in 2020. 

Let’s see how things break down from this fall.

Starting pitching

Top-end starters Ryan Garcia and Jack Ralston were taken in the second and seventh round of the June draft, respectively. Eight game winner Nate Hadley went in the 25th round. Those three represented 30 of the 63 starts on the mound and 241 of the 570 innings pitched.

But Savage is also very comfortable with the arms he has returning in 2020 and what he’ll go forward with on the mound. He loves his versatility and the depth that this year’s pitching corps will have, comparing it favorably with last year’s unit.

After those three arms mentioned above, everyone of note from a year ago returns. That includes weekend starters in right-handers Zach Pettway and Jesse Bergin. Both were freshman All-Americans in the last two years. Pettway ended up getting hurt late in the 2019 season and missed the postseason run, something that head coach John Savage says “could’ve made a real difference."

Pettway (2-2, 4.55, .246 OBA) was one of those guys who never seemed to be a freshman. The moment he got his first starting assignment on a Sunday in his first season he didn’t seem to get fazed by it. He has been a calm, down-to-earth, lead-by-example guy on the bump for the Bruins in his first two years. He went 8-4, 3.35, .235 OBA his freshman season, and after taking last summer off to get healthy again, Pettway is “back to 100 percent and throwing the ball as well as he ever has,” according to Savage. He has a four-pitch mix, adding a slider to his repertoire last season, while also adding some needed muscle to his frame. One of his best outings a year ago came on a Friday night against defending national champion Oregon State where he threw 107 pitches, 70 of which were strikes, and held the Beavers to just three hits in seven innings of an 8-0 win.

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Bergin (5-0, 4.43), a 6-3 righty with a ton of upside, had some solid outings as a freshman last year, including Sunday starts in the first three weeks of the season where he threw 17.2 innings and gave up just one earned run. When Pac-12 play came along, Coach Savage admits he hit some rough patches that taught him a lot of valuable lessons. Still, through it all, Bergin ended up holding opponents to a .230 batting average. He showed a lot of promise heading into what should be an even better 2020 season before a tweaked back prevented him from fall scrimmage action. But Savage assured me he will be 100% when the preseason kicks in.

Right-hander Nick Nastrini was one helluva story for the Bruins last season, getting three starts in February and leading the Pac-12 in strikeouts for that month after posting a 0.00 ERA. Soon after, he was shelved for three full months due to thoracic outlet syndrome. Then, in the regional finals, he got the start against LMU and pitched six innings of four-hit, one-run ball to help the Bruins win an elimination game 6-1.

Nastrini is a former Area Code Games alum and had a solid summer pitching in the Cape Cod League. He should play a prominent role in the 2020 rotation as long as he stays out of the M*A*S*H unit.

There are three other pitchers that coach Savage says have used this fall to give them a shot at a weekend starting rotation slot. Right-hander Sean Mullen only threw six innings as a freshman a year ago but spent last summer pitching in the Cape Cod League and consistently hitting 91-94 mph. A former draft pick of the Colorado Rockies out of high school, Savage thinks Mullen probably took one of the biggest jumps of anyone on the staff this fall.

Also look out for a pair of freshman that the Bruin staff are really high on. Right-hander Jared Karros (yes the son of that famous Karros) has what Savage called “high pitchability and a high baseball IQ.” Karros is 6-foot-6, 175 and hits 88-89 on his speedball but has tremendous upside as he puts on more muscle and experiences more starts. One of the few lefties on the staff, Jake Saum could also challenge for the Sunday spot or a midweek spot. The 5-foot-10 bulldog from Ventura’s St. Bonaventure High School turned some heads this fall with the way he competed and showed no fear as a freshman.

Bullpen

It’s hard to knock the Bruin bullpen when you consider that Holden Powell was named the Stopper of the Year by the NCBWA last year after posting a 4-3 record, 1.84 ERA and 17 saves. Powell also made 40 appearances while holding batters to a minuscule .121 average. The one thing the staff would like to see Powell do is become even more of a door-slammer after he relented 27 walks in his 49 innings of work. If he cuts down on that number, as the coaches expect he will, he’ll become even more of a force to close out games.

But the even better news for the relief corps is that coach Savage said he “really likes the depth and versatility” that his bullpen has shown so far this fall. Returning to their relief roles are a pair of valuable seniors in right-handers Felix Rubi (2-0, 1.31, .160 OBA) and Kyle Mora (3-3, 2.09, .196 OBA), who both fit the long-relief mold and bring a bevy of experience.

Also watch for RHP Michael Townsend, a junior who posted 3-0, 1.85 numbers and gave up just five earned runs in 24.1 innings last year. Coach Savage is also glad to get the services of a trio of lefties this coming season in Daniel Colwell, a sophomore who was only able to toss 2.0 innings last year but made a sizable jump this fall, and two freshmen who are former Area Code Games alums in Josh Hahn (6’2, 190) and the aforementioned Saum. Savage said he was comfortable with putting those three out there after what he’d seen them this fall.

And don’t forget about right-hander Jack Filby, who has had a solid fall session and made 23 appearances out of the bullpen last year (2-0, 4.05, .241 OBA).

One last name that could come back and be a big contributor is senior left-hander Nick Scheidler, who has had a hard-luck career at times in Westwood. Scheidler made 37 appearances out of the bullpen in 2017 as a freshman and then 36 appearances in 2018 as a sophomore. He was sent to pitch in the Cape Cod League in the summer of 2018 but then missed all of last season with an injury. He’s using this fall session to get back on the mound, build up his arm strength and set himself for a strong 2020 season.

Infield

Three of the four infield positions have moved on in first baseman Michael Toglia, second baseman Chase Strumpf and third baseman Ryan Kreidler. But shortstop Kevin Kendall is back (though likely to move to second base) and catcher Noah Cardenas (the team’s leading hitter at .375) also returns after a freshman All-American season behind the dish. Those two will be joined up the middle with former first-round draft pick Matt McClain, who should take over the shortstop position. It's his natural position after he played mostly centerfield last year due to all the experience the Bruins had in the infield.

Those two should form what should be a good middle infield, as has been proven so far this fall. In the scrimmage game I saw vs. UC Irvine, those two looked totally in their element at their new positions. To be fair, both of them struggled at times with the bat last season, hitting .258 and .203, respectively. But against UCI, Kendall took the first pitch he saw from Eater starter Peter Van Loon and sent it screaming over the centerfield fence for a leadoff dinger. And McClain has a ton of torque. Of his 43 hits a year ago, 19 were for extra bases, including six triples. Obviously, being a former first round draftee, the coaches think the game has slowed down for him. After having a good summer playing in Cape Cod, McClain could be ready to make some headlines this season.

In the fall ball game vs. UC Irvine, redshirt freshman JT Schwartz was in the cleanup spot in and played first base, and sophomore Jake Moberg manned the hot corner, although coach Savage intimated that the corner positions are certainly up for grabs. Schwartz didn’t play in 2019 but has historically been a top prospect, including playing in the 2017 Area Code Games and hitting an impressive .320 in the summer of 2018 in the West Coast League. There, he essentially was a high schooler playing against college-aged players.

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Moberg is a former Colorado Rockies draftee, who was able to get just 14 at-bats last season, but should make a much bigger impact this spring as a sophomore. In the three at-bats against the Anteaters, Moberg slashed a pair of singles and knocked in a run with a deep flyout to left field.

Besides Schwartz and Moberg, coach Savage talked highly of a couple former shortstops who could fill in the corner roles in rangy freshman Michael Curialle (former Area Code Games player) and sophomore Mikey Perez, who had just 10 at-bats last year as he sat behind all that infield experience the Bruins had. He is a big player to watch after putting together a solid fall. Savage said he would “feel very comfortable” with any combination of those guys because of their athleticism.

Outfield

It all starts with centerfield extraordinaire Garrett Mitchell, an Eric Byrnes-type of playmaker who ranges the meadow with aplomb and puts the pressure on opposing pitchers with his speed. Mitchell spent the summer playing for Team USA and looks to improve on his numbers. He led the Pac-12 with 12 triples last year and added a team-best 18 stolen bases. Needless to say, he is a difference maker for this Bruin squad. He was held out of fall scrimmages due to a stress fracture in his shin back in the summer, but he is on track to be ready to go when preseason camp opens in January.

There are a lot of candidates for the corner outfield positions and the DH role. In the scrimmage vs. UCI, redshirt junior Jarron Silva (.238 in 42 at-bats last year) got the starting nod in center. Junior college transfer Patrick Caulfield and senior Kyle Cuellar got the other starting assignments. Caulfield played his first two years collegiately at Santa Barbara City College and has impressed the Bruin coaches this fall. Meanwhile, Cuellar is an old veteran on this Bruin team. He was a freshman All-American in 2017, but then had two injury-plagued seasons, including last year when he started just three games and played in 22 overall. He hit .174 in his 24 at-bats.

Also keep an eye on incoming freshman Emmanuel Dean, who is well put together at 6’2, 210 and was another of those prized Area Code Games participants in 2018. Savage says of Dean, “He’s a really strong offensive player for our program.”

Coach Savage also intimated that the aforementioned Curialle and Mikey Perez could also pull duty in the meadow thanks to their significant athleticism.

One name not to forget is senior Will McInerny, who is a backup catcher but also has 52 starts the last two seasons. Although Cardenas is stout behind the dish, Savage thinks McInerny has a shot to play professionally as a catcher and could be a go-to for the DH role this year as well given his valuable experience.

The newbies

Depending on which recruiting rankings you adhere to, the Bruins got either a top-five class coming in (No. 5 according to Baseball America) or merely a top-25 class (No. 21 according to Collegiate Baseball). D1Baseball’s recruiting rankings are coming out soon, in case you’re wondering. Either way, Savage has brought in some top-flight recruiting classes before, and he sees this one as another legitimate group of players that can be difference makers.

“It’s not a big class but it’s a strong class,” Savage said. “We feel like all of them are potential future professionals.”

There are only eight high schoolers and two junior college transfers in this year’s class, but as you read above, this fall session has shown that a number of them will be significant contributors this coming spring. The class is headlined by pitchers Jared Karros, Josh Hahn and Jake Saum. One pitcher not yet mentioned in this column but was talked up by Savage in our conversation is Charles Harrison, a 6-foot-1, 165-pound right hander from Canyon High School in Santa Clarita, California.

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Two of the newbies were drafted last June in infielder Michael Curialle, who also made the All West Coast League this past summer. He was selected by the Colorado Rockies in the 31st round last June.

Also, not yet mentioned here is catcher Darius Perry, who has great catch-and-throw skills and should be a good backup for Cardenas this year. Perry was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the 38th round and was the third-ranked catcher in the country by Perfect Game.

Joining Curialle on the All West Coast League team this past summer was the aforementioned Caulfield, who is a junior college transfer that got the start in right field vs. the Anteaters in the fall scrimmage. Right-hander Adrian Chaidez is another junior college guy who had 70 strikeouts in 51 innings at Cypress College last year.

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