College sports fans everywhere are well aware of the spring practice that football teams hold and the importance of it. Heck, Alabama had over 78,000 people show up for their football team's spring game. College baseball has its own equivalent of spring practice though with fall practice and baseball's fall practice may even be more important than football's off-season practice.
College baseball players take off for the summer to outposts around the country where they compete in summer leagues. Some players played in the prestigious Cape Cod League, where junior LHP Rob Rasmussen was named to the All-League Team after going 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA for the summer. These summer leagues give the players a chance to grow as players so when they come back in the fall, you often have a different team than the one you had three months earlier. The limited practice time before the season's first game in February also puts a premium on the practice you get in during the fall.
This year's fall practice is especially important for the UCLA baseball team as they look to continue to work in a number of new players and continue an attitude makeover throughout the program.
"The goal of fall practice is to create two things, competitiveness and chemistry," head coach John Savage said. "We've got a bunch of young players, but I think you can really see with our position players that they are having fun and competing for jobs. I think this fall we have really laid the groundwork and foundation for a very competitive and cohesive group of guys who have the chance to have a big year."
One of the biggest problems for UCLA last year was their inability to score runs. The Bruins hit only .285 as a team. In addition, they struck out often and struggled to hit behind runners and bunt them over, making it difficult to generate runs. Coming into this season, they are looking to correct that by emphasizing bat control, situational hitting and bunting, while also running the bases aggressively to force defensive mistakes. It will be especially important for UCLA because they don't have a lot of power, having lost the players that accounted for 40 of the team's 54 home runs last season.
"We are going to try to play fast. I think we're going to have enough guys that can hit the ball in the gap and a couple who can hit it out," Savage said. "We have guys that can run the bases as well. We have a team that can use the whole field when they hit and you're going to see an offensive team along the lines of what Coach Vanderhook has had in the past at Fullerton and what he likes. The guys really seem to have taken on his personality. They're tough and are tough outs."
One of the biggest things the coaching staff emphasized in recruiting was bringing in some left-handed bats. The Bruins were extremely right-handed heavy at the plate last season and it left them vulnerable to right-handed pitching. In 2009, UCLA had a meager .430 winning percentage versus right-handed starters, but against left-handed starters, that number jumped to .666.
"Last year, we were so right-handed that we had little offense versus right-handers. Last year, you could have seen seven right-handed bats in our lineup." This year, Savage said that, "you could see seven lefties in the line-up."
The influx of left-handed bats will give the Bruins some options with their lineup to best match-up versus the other team's arms, the ballpark or style of play they would like to employ. Savage and the coaching staff feel comfortable with up to 15 different players, each of whom can be included in different line-ups that will allow them to best match-up to their opponents.
In an effort to get some more left-handed bats in the line-up, the Bruins have made some position changes. Senior Blair Dunlap, who has spent his entire collegiate career in the outfield, has been working at second base, while a pair of outfielders, senior Justin Uribe and junior Brett Krill, have made the move from outfield to first base.
"Those moves are permanent," Savage made clear. "It gives us more versatility than what we had. With Uribe and Krill at first, one can play there and the other DH. Uribe looks confident at first and we want to be able to move Uribe and Krill around a bit. Blair [Dunlap] played second in high school and he's learning the timing, speed and positioning of the game. It's not easy, but he's adapted well and the three have been responsive in terms of wanting to make those moves."
Those moves are going to clear up space in the outfield, where the current rotation appears to be one junior in Chris Giovinazzo, along with three freshmen, Beau Amaral, Cody Keefer and Jeff Gelalich. Savage had some glowing things to say about those three freshmen.
"Those three make up as good a young outfield as any in the country," Savage said. "A true left fielder in Keefer, a true center fielder in Amaral and eventually, we believe a true right fielder in Gelalich."
Those three help make up what Savage believes is an outstanding freshman class. "This class doesn't have a marquee pitching name, which keeps it from the top 10. It's a class ranked 19th by Baseball America, which was our lowest since I've been here, but I think position player-wise, we will get a lot of miles out of them." Savage said that in addition to the three outfielders, two other freshmen have really stood out with tremendous falls. "Trevor Brown will be special behind the plate. He's defends well and is an offensive player who needs strength. Cody Regis is an offensive, left-handed hitting third baseman who can play short and second, but his future is at third."
The strength of the UCLA team will be on the mound though, where they have a couple outstanding sophomore starters. Gerrit Cole was arguably the nation's most talked about freshman pitcher in 2009, thanks to a mid-90's fastball and devastating slider, but the Yankees' first-round pick out of high school wasn't even the Bruins' top freshman arm last year. That honor belonged to Trevor Bauer, who skipped his senior year of high school to join UCLA early. He began the season as the closer, then moved into the rotation, amassing a 9-3 record and 2.99 ERA for the year and picking up Freshman Pitcher of the Year honors along the way.
Outside of those two though, there is a lot up in the air. While there is talent throughout the pitching staff, health is a major concern for a couple guys. Redshirt sophomores Erik Goeddel and Dan Klein have battled injuries throughout their UCLA careers, but both are ready to work their way back into the mix. The fall has served as an audition for some of the arms, as the closer and Sunday starter role are both question marks at this point.
"Both the closer and Sunday starter spot are up for grabs at this point. We're looking for Dan Klein to be the closer. He's completely healthy and has been up to 91-92 mph with a major league change-up in practice. He's very good off the mound, can hold runners and is very competitive. We're trying to mold him as our closer and we think he's 100% up for it," Savage said. "Sunday is very competitive. Garett Claypool, Rob Rasmussen, Matt Grace and Scott Griggs are all in it. Griggs just started throwing and hasn't competed to be in the mix yet though. There will be a lot of competition so we don't know where we'll go there, but we really are looking to get Dan [Klein] in the closer's role."
The Bruins are clearly in the mode of molding a new attitude. The tempo and competition in practice is unlike any in past years and it is clear that nobody is handed anything at this point. While a guy like Klein is being pushed towards that closer's role, he will continue to have guys gunning for that job. Meanwhile Dunlap, Krill and Uribe's move to the infield has given the Bruins options around the horn. They will be in constant competition with guys like sophomore Tyler Rahmatulla, junior Niko Gallego and sophomore Adrian Williams, while Regis and junior Dean Espy have created some good competition at third base. Behind the plate, incumbent starter, sophomore Steve Rodriguez, has pressure from Brown and freshman Tyler Heineman.
"We're much more left-handed and we run better. We're better defensively in the outfield and better behind the plate. I think there's a lot of things that you can look at, at each position, and see that there's competition there, which is what we want," Savage said.
Those assets and competition should only make for a better team come their Bruins' first game on February 19th if they can take those attributes from practice to games. They will get their first chance to take those skills to a different stage when fall practice concludes next week with the Blue-Gold World Series, a series of intrasquad games at Jackie Robinson Stadium. Those games are schedule for November 16th, 18th and 20th, with first pitch at 3:30 pm PST each day.