Any way you slice it, 2009 was a disappointing season for UCLA baseball. The Bruins entered the season ranked anywhere from #12 (Baseball America) to #25 (NCBWA) and yet their season ended with a loss. The problem is, the loss wasn't a Regional or Super Regional loss to Fullerton like the past two years or a Regional loss to Missouri, like in 2006, but it was a loss to Arizona St. in the final regular season game of the season. UCLA finished 27-29 overall, 15-12 in Pac-10 play (good for third place for the fourth consecutive season) and they didn't qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2005. Not only did their season end in the regular season, they were fighting an uphill battle all season long just to get into a Regional and were eliminated from Regional consideration with a pair of games left in the regular season.
Granted, expectations for UCLA were unrealistic. Let's rewind back to the preseason and consider all the obstacles the Bruins were facing. The Bruins lost the ace of their pitching staff who also played center field, their starting catcher, starting second baseman, starting third baseman, starting shortstop, starting left fielder and backup catcher. Those players accounted for six of the Bruins' top seven hitters. The Bruins also had replaced two coaches and their replacements, while excellent coaches, brought new styles and methods for the players to adjust to. Add in a ridiculously difficult schedule that included four consecutive weekends on the road, 10 opponents who went onto qualify for a regional, six of which were #1 seeds and four of which were awarded national seeds by the selection committee. With all of that facing the Bruins in the face, a top 25 ranking and projected Pac-10 title may have been unrealistic, but it was not unrealistic at all to expect another regional appearance.
The Bruins has a myriad of problems this season. There was the implosion of supposed ace Gavin Brooks prior to the season (although he admirably worked himself back and became a solid closer), the disappointing seasons of Brendan Lafferty and Jason Novak at the back end of the bullpen, the dozens of baserunning mistakes, the inability to produce productive outs with the bats early in the season, the failure to field competently when necessary and most amazing, their 2-14 record in one-run ballgames. Looking back on the season, there are five games that stand out as winnable key games given away by the Bruins (in chronological order):
- 2/27 vs. Rice (Houston College Classic)- The Bruins had won their first two games of the season, then dropped their next three before playing Rice in their first game of the Houston College Classic. The Houston College Classic is the nation's premier tournament and provided the Bruins a chance to play in a major league ballpark, in front of thousands of fans and against high-quality competition. This was UCLA's opportunity to prove that their program was ready to take the next step against a traditional power. After falling behind 3-1 in the first inning, the Bruins got stout pitching the rest of the way. After two runs evened the game, UCLA got the go-ahead run in the top of the eighth inning, but gave that lead right back in the bottom half. The game went to extra innings where the Bruins made a two-out error that allowed the winning run to score. UCLA had their opportunity to make a statement, but when they got locked in a tight game, they made too many mistakes, culminating in a game ending error.
- 4/25 vs. Oregon St.- The Bruins early season losing streak eventually reached 10 games and as a result, they were playing catchup the rest of the year. UCLA had done a fantastic job of getting close to the .500 mark and after a series opening win over the Beavers on Friday, they had a chance to get within a game of .500 on Saturday. Chris Giovinazzo hit his first career home run when he came into pinch hit and smacked a ball over the right field fence for a 3-2 UCLA lead. Trevor Bauer gave the Bruins an outstanding start, going eight innings and allowing only two runs to give the Bruins a 3-2 lead heading into the ninth inning. It shouldn't have been that close of a game though because the Bruins had not scored in the third inning in the third inning with the bases loaded and in the eighth when they had two on with only one out. As a result, Gavin Brooks was charged with protecting a one-run lead in the ninth and he gave up three runs on three hits, a wild pitch and a passed ball. A game that UCLA had in their hands ended up a Beaver victory because the Bruins failed to capitalize in their opportunities, then blew it in the ninth.
- 5/8 vs. California- Just three days earlier, the Bruins had made a major breakthrough by finally getting back over the .500 mark, but they gave that away on a Friday night at Jackie Robinson Stadium. Knowing that they had a rough finish to the season with three top five teams, UCLA had to take care of business against the lesser teams like Cal to give themselves so leeway in those final two weeks. Versus the second-worst pitching staff in the Pac-10, UCLA left nine men on-base and wasted a spectacular start from Gerrit Cole. Cole threw 8.1 innings, struck out 11 and allowed just one earned run, but three runs total thanks to some shoddy ninth inning fielding. Tied 1-1 because of all of their men left on-base, UCLA made a ninth inning error that allowed Cal to plate two and go ahead, 3-1. The Bruins loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth with nobody out and scored one on a sacrifice fly, but hit into a game-ending double play with runners on the corners to lose, 3-2.
- 5/16 vs. Cal St. Fullerton- UCLA lost the opening game of their series versus Cal St. Fullerton and knowing they needed a series win to avoid needing a perfect final week to make a regional, faced plenty of pressure in the second game of the series. That pressure only intensified when the Titans jumped out to a 5-0 lead, but the Bruins fought back in the seventh. After cutting the Titans' lead to 5-1 earlier in the inning, the Bruins loaded the bases with two-out in the seventh. That brought Cody Decker to the plate, who belted one out to center field and tie the game at five apiece. Back in an even ballgame, the Bruins got a leadoff double in the eighth and moved him to third with one out. The next two batters couldn't convert though and the Bruins exited the inning still tied. In the ninth inning, a poor throw by catcher Gino Aielli allowed a Titan to steal third, then on the play at the plate on a sacrifice fly, Aielli dropped the ball on a throw that appeared to have the runner dead to rights. That run proved to be the winning run as the Bruins well 6-5.
- 5/18 at UC Irvine- Because of their series loss to Cal St. Fullerton, UCLA needed to go a perfect 4-0 in their final week to qualify for a regional, with a 3-1 week giving them a very outside shot. That week started with a game at the nation's top-ranked team, UC Irvine. After getting out to an early 3-1 lead, the Bruins had a runner on third with one-out in the sixth, but couldn't plate him to extend the lead. A half inning later, Irvine hit a two-run home run to tie the ballgame at threes. The game stretched to extra innings, where Cody Decker hit a tenth inning home run to put UCLA ahead, 4-3. With a runner on third and two-out, Gerrit Cole, making his first ever relief appearance, induced a ground ball to shortstop that should have ended the game, but Niko Gallego booted the ball. That extended the game and allowed the tying run to score. Later in the inning, the Anteaters got a RBI single to win the game and end the Bruins' regional hopes.
So UCLA had their chances. There is no doubt that this season, the Bruins' failures fall solely on their own shoulders. While such a season is undoubtedly frustrating, there is a bright side. Because UCLA's issues were self-inflicted, they can be fixed and the Bruins can have a very good 2010 because there were a number of bright spots in 2009.
- Cody Decker, who was named to the All-Pac-10 team, batted .322 with 21 homers (which led the Pac-10), 53 RBI and 55 runs scored. Those 55 runs scored are the most by a Bruin since 2000 and he finished his UCLA career with 47 homers, tied for seventh on the UCLA all-time list.
- Gino Aielli emerged as the Bruins' leading hitter. The senior, who little was expected from prior to the year, batted .353 as his outstanding hitting earned him increased playing time as the season progressed.
- Trevor Bauer finished the season 9-3 on the season (9-0 as a starter) with a 2.99 ERA, which was eighth best in the conference and in the top five amongst freshman starters. The freshman pitched 36 innings in his last four starts with three complete games and a nine inning start that UCLA lost in 10 innings. Bauer's outstanding season, which began with him as the closer before being moved to the rotation, earned him 2009 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors.
- Gerrit Cole registered a 3.49 ERA, a .191 opponent's batting average and was second in the conference in strikeouts per nine innings at 11.01. For his efforts, Cole was named to the 2009 All-Pac-10 team. Combined with Bauer, the two freshman provide UCLA a pair of starting pitchers to get excited about. Both will take part in the USA National Team Trials this summer and play with the national team if selected.
- The pitching staff as a whole showed outstanding stuff despite some struggles fro Gavin Brooks early and Rob Rasmussen after the first few weeks. The UCLA pitchers struck out 509 batters in 2009, the second most in program history.
The support for the UCLA program certainly wasn't overwhelming in 2009. The Bruins averaged 727 fans per home game this season, according to the reported attendances this season. Keep in mind though that they include free giveaway tickets (family members and promotions to children) in those totals and often pad the total by 100 or 200. That means the paid attendance average this season was closer to somewhere between 400 and 500, which would leave them 500-600 short of the NCAA's top 50 based on the 2008 figures.
While the program lacked support in the stands, it still struggled for support from the athletic department. UCLA did build a brand new hitting facility prior to the season that ranks among the nation's best, but it was completed only due to the generosity of the late Jack Gifford and his wife, Rhodine Gifford. The Giffords donated nearly all, if not all of the money for the project and they hired their own people who built the hitting facility at Stanford to build the facility in a timely fashion. Meanwhile, the rest of Jackie Robinson Stadium remains terribly sub-par. There still isn't enough seating, restrooms, concession points or cover for the fans. There still isn't a press box for the press, a video board, auxillary rooms or an adequate playing surface (the surface installed prior to 2008 was done horribly and the surface is worse than it used to be). The clubhouse and player facilities are still not up to par and while the athletic department claims they can host both a regional and Super Regional, the NCAA would be reluctant to award them one so it would take an extraordinary season from the Bruins to host what would be a terribly hosted regional. Making matters worse, the athletic department is still sticking to their plans of upgrading the facility one piece at a time, which will be a lengthy process that won't address all of the program's needs.
The 2009 season showed how bright the Bruins' future can be. UCLA has a pair of starting pitchers that can match any one-two punch in the nation. They have the majority of the position players returning in 2010 and now have a year with the same coaching staff, which is superb. That said, the past season was frustrating and not good enough. The program's players and coaches will have to take a step forward next season on the field, while the athletic department will have to take a step forward in their support for the program. Next week we'll take a look at the future of the program from what can be accomplished, how it can be accomplished and what/who to keep an eye on in the next few years. As always, you can keep up to date with all things UCLA baseball throughout the offseason and into next season on my UCLA baseball twitter.