Just as I did last year, this year's season preview will be a five part series that will take us right up to the first pitch of the season on February 20 when UC Davis visits Jackie Robinson Stadium. Part 1 is a general look at the 2008 season, the pre-season polls and a few opinions from analysts around the country. Part 2 will look into the pitchers. Part 3 will feature the Bruins' position players and Part 4 will be a look at the Pac 10. Part 5 will complete the preview as we take a look around the nation and where the Bruins stand in the national sense.
The Bruins entered 2008 with higher expectations than the program has ever had. One poll had them ranked #1 in their preseason poll, another had them third and nearly everyone had UCLA somewhere in their top 10. The team had talent all over the place and were primed to make their first College World Series since 1997, but the team fall well short of expectations.
The 2008 season started under ominous skies as their opening series was cut short by a game due to rain. With the exception of a weekend sweep at the hands of Long Beach St., the Bruins never found themselves in a prolonged losing streak, but they never managed to put together a winning streak either and the team hovered around .500 for the majority of the first month. Once Pac 10 play began the team stepped up their level of play some, but they weren't assured of a regional spot until a sweep of Washington St. in the second to last week of the season. Despite underachieving, UCLA entered their regional as a #2 seed. In their opening regional game, the Bruins defeated Virginia, then they beat top seeded Cal St. Fullerton in their second game. The team now had two games to win just one over Fullerton to advance to the Super Regionals, but they lost 11-8 in the first and dropped a tough 5-4 game in the second to bring a close to their season.
Some blamed the Bruins' 2008 struggles on players pressing due to the Bruins' high preseason ranking or due to the pressure placed on them individually in anticipation of the MLB Draft. Others blamed a program-wide culture that left players too uptight, while others blamed coaches. In an effort to fix some of these issues, head coach John Savage replaced two assistant coaches by bringing in Steve Pearse and Rick Vanderhook. Vanderhook is one of the country's best assistant coaches who spent essentially his entire career at Fullerton under George Horton. Vanderhook is a tough, no nonsense coach who is arguably the nation's top hitting coach. He brings an approach that stresses patience and a small ball approach. Players who he coaches are always very good bunters and use the entire field very well. Pearse has spent his entire career on the west coast at Fresno St., Cal and Pacific. He is one of the west's best recruiters and does an exceptional job working with fielders. In their short time with the new coaches the players have noticed a major difference from last season. The players I've spoken to have talked about how organized practices were and how disciplined the coaches expect the players to be. The coaches have simplified things mechanically and stressed the importance of the basics. So far, the coaches have made a major difference in the culture of the program, but we'll have to wait until their first road bump during real games to see real results.
The rankings for this season's UCLA team are all over the place. Some have the Bruins as high as #12 (Baseball America), others have the Bruins at #21 (Rivals and Collegiate Baseball) and some have the Bruins barely hanging in the poll at #25 (NCBWA). UCLA has amazing depth on the mound, but are extremely inexperienced nearly everywhere else. The Bruins have to replace their leader behind the plate in Ryan Babineau, their emotional leader and .300 hitting third baseman Jermaine Curtis, top talent Brandon Crawford and 2008's leading hitter, second baseman Alden Carrithers. All of those players were drafted last season and now leave holes at catcher, second base, shortstop and corner infield spot. The Bruins are also dependent on two players, Cody Decker and Gabe Cohen, to play like the All-Conference performers they were in 2007 instead of the disappointments they were in 2008. If Cohen, Decker and the rest of the guys who will be asked to fill holes play up to their potential, this is a team that could find themselves in Omaha, but that is a lot of expect from so many inexperienced players.
Baseball America thinks highly enough of the Bruins that they have predicted UCLA to not just qualify for a regional, but to do so as Pac 10 champions who will host a regional as the #8 national seed. Rivals' Kendall Rogers expects the Bruins to win the Pac 10 this year.
There aren't many teams more motivated this season than UCLA. The Bruins entered last season as a unanimous preseason pick to compete for the national title, but that didn't happen. The Bruins lacked consistency and were unable to take care of business in crucial situations.
With a deep pitching staff and a more than serviceable offense, the Bruins should win the Pac-10 title.
The Bruins will have to do so against an amazingly difficult schedule that has been ranked as the nation's toughest by the premier college baseball cruncher at Boyd's World. Not only will the Bruins play the toughest schedule in the nation, but they will do so with a lot of non-conference games on the road. Due to the condensed schedule implemented by the NCAA last year the Bruins had to push their return trip to East Carolina back to this season and have left them playing three consecutive non-conference weekends on the road followed by their Pac 10 opener at USC. The Bruins open the season at home versus UC Davis before their four consecutive road weekends at the Houston College Classic where they'll play #7 Rice, #8 Baylor and #9 UC Irvine. After that the Bruins will travel to #16 Oklahoma and East Carolina. The Bruins then jump into their Pac 10 schedule with a weekend off from Pac 10 play being filled by a series with #5 Cal St. Fullerton. In midweek play, the Bruins will play #17 Pepperdine, the aformentioned UC Irvine, San Diego St. UC Riverside and Long Beach St. If the Bruins are to qualify for postseason play, they will certainly be ready for the high quality competition.
To help them prepare for the competition, the Bruins will be able to practice in the recently completed Jack and Rhodine Gifford Hitting Facility. The hitting facility is one of the better facilities in the country at 10,500 square feet. The facility has netting that can be adjusted for different drills and can fit two 20 x 70 ft. cages, three 20 x 60 ft. cages or a dozen stations for tee work and soft toss. In addition to the hitting facility, they are also planning on replacing the grass berms above the dugouts with seating to increase the capacity and make it more appealing to the NCAA for regional hosting. Whether or not the additional seating is actually completed is another issue.