The last time UCLA won their first six games of the season was back in 1997 when they won their first seven and eventually went on to play in the College World Series. Of course, you can't really put too much into six games. Six games is only a tick below 11% of the team's games and the competition hasn't been the toughest, but it's as much how the Bruins have gone about winning their opening six games as it is the fact that they'v won them that has the UCLA faithful so giddy. The Bruins have outscored their opponents 65-14 through six games and it's not just the blue and gold clad crowd that's hopped on the UCLA bandwagon. Multiple national writers have begun to embrace this UCLA team.
The Bruins are now ranked in every major poll, as high as 14th in the Collegiate Baseball poll. After watching the Bruins knock around one of the SEC's better pitchers, Sonny Gray, in their win over Vanderbilt on Friday night, Rivals.com's Kendall Rogers came away impressed. In a chat on Monday, Rogers commented that he thought the ceiling on this Bruin team was "very high" and adding this.
I love UCLA's pitching staff, and if the Bruins continue to hit like they have the first couple of weekends, watch out. Really like the squad Coach Savage has put together.
Rogers' praise for the Bruins began early in the weekend, featuring the team in his Friday column and then adding UCLA to his "Five Rising" list. While flattering, that praise waned in comparison to what CollegeBaseballToday.com's Eric Sorenson poured on the Bruins after watching them take down USC on Sunday.
Again, it’s early, but this seems to be a special season brewing for the Bruins - having already turned this into a Bruin town after today. Hell, for all we know, this may be a Bruin state, conference and country before all is said and done.
The college baseball writers clearly dig this UCLA team and opponents have a lot to say about them too. After the Bruins knocked Vanderbilt around on Friday, beating the Commodores, 9-2, Vandy went on to put a beat down on USC and then beat Oklahoma St. On Sunday, Sorenson had this little exchange at Dodger Stadium.
I caught up with Vanderbilt S.I.D. Thomas Samuel just after his Commodores had jumped out to their 5-1 lead early in today’s first game and told him tongue-in-cheek like, "Looks like you guys aren’t too bad."
He said, "Yeah, but UCLA… THAT’s the team."
Praise all around for UCLA and for good reason. To this point, there isn't much to complain about if you're a Bruin. Just what is it that has the Bruins rolling, though?
Let's start with the offense, which was the concern coming into the season. In the preseason, I stated that UCLA would have a darn good team if the offense could adequate, but...adequacy is no sure thing." There was little reason to think otherwise about the Bruin offense. A dreadful offense a year ago lost four of their most productive hitters and was replacing them with hitters that weren't just unproven, but they were young too. Clearly, there should have been reason to think otherwise because the offense has had no problems through six games.
The Bruins are hitting .379 as a team after the weekend and only one Bruin with at least 10 at-bats is hitting below .333. Their team batting average is third in the Pac-10 behind only Cal and Arizona St., two teams who have played Towson, Northern Illinois, Southern Utah, UC Davis, C. Michigan, St. Mary's and Cal St. Bakersfield this year. Hardly murderers row. UCLA's 11 home runs are tops in the conference with a trio of teams tied for second-place in long bombs with six apiece. The Bruins own a .471 on-base percentage with six holding on-base percentages over .500 (minimum 10 at-bats) and another four owning on-base percentages over .400.
The hitters have completely bought into Coach Vanderhook's system and their efficiency moving runners over, using the whole field and going to the plate with an approach that makes them successful in that at-bat while wearing down opposing pitchers has been magnificent. The Bruins have gotten production from a lineup that's rarely been the same, rotating in 12 players regularly, each of whom has contributed.
Dean Espy, a sophomore JC transfer playing D-1 ball for the first time is hitt .500 with a pair of homers in just 10 at-bats. Steve Rodriguez, who hit .197 in 2009 as a freshman with a grand total of four extra base hits is batting .350 with four homers, a team-leading 22 total bases and a 1.100 slugging percentage. Big junior Brett Krill, who much was expected of when he got to campus, is hitting .474 and while he's yet to hit a homer, he does have four doubles. Niko Gallego is hitting the worst among those with at least three starts at .333, but he leads the team with nine RBI. Freshman Beau Amaral is hitting .421, fellow freshman Cody Regis is hitting .412 and a third freshman, Cody Keefer, is hitting .400 with a team-best .571 on-base percentage.
Everyone is getting involved with the bats and those same guys swatting the ball have been improved defensively. UCLA has made just five errors for a .978 fielding percentage, third in the Pac-10, and their improved athleticism has allowed them to cover more ground defensively. A sturdy defense that can run balls down has given the pitching staff extra confidence, especially the bullpen.
Coming into the year, the starters looked to be primed for a big year. Highly touted slinger Gerrit Cole was throwing on Fridays, 2009 National Freshman Pitcher of the year was going on Saturdays, Cape Cod League All-Star Rob Rasmussen was toeing the rubber on Sundays and Garett Claypool had the midweek job with his 3.67 career ERA. Pretty darn good, but to this point, the starters have been the four worst UCLA pitchers. Rasmussen got knocked around in his first start before bouncing back with a strong 4.2 innings versus USC, Bauer gave up three runs in eight innings in his only start and Gerrit Cole's ERA is 3.27, while Claypool has an ERA that looks astronomical on the UCLA stat sheet, 1.12.
How does a 1.12 ERA look astronomical on the UCLA stat sheet? When your entire bullpen has yet to surrender an earned run, it sure looks that way. Through 19.2 innings, the UCLA bullpen has allowed a single run - an unearned one.
Dan Klein was pegged as the closer in the fall and looked dominant in the fall after returning from a shoulder injury that wiped out half of the redshirt sophomore's freshman year than all of 2009. Most were confident in his ability to close out games and he's shown why, holding opponents to a .063 batting average in 5.1 innings while striking out nine and picking up one save.
The question was whether UCLA could get the ball from the starters to Klein and specifically, who would handle the seventh and eighth inning duties. Erik Goeddel, please step forward. The redshirt sophomore had Tommy John surgery in his senior year of high school, ruling the high school AFLAC All-American out for 2008 and limiting him to nine appearances in 2009 as he battled though a hellish rehab. Finally healthy, Goeddel has been sensational, picking up a pair of wins already and not allowing an earned run in 7.2 innings. Acting as the key set-up man to get Klein the ball, Goeddel has excelled, but has gotten help from others in front of him. Matt Grace has made four appearances, limiting opponents to a .083 batting average and striking out six in 3.2 innings. In addition, Claypool, Mitchell Beacom and Brandon Lodge have each thrown a perfect inning, right in line with what has been a near-perfect bullpen.
The Bruins are rolling and feeling good about themselves, as well they should. A team full of question marks just two weeks ago is no longer answering for what they have done, but for what past UCLA teams have done. Too often, Bruin teams stocked with talent have shown spurts of greatness, but the program's lone two College World Series appearances are evidence of a program that has struggled for consistency. It is why the number six keeps coming up. Six games. A lot can happen and everyone, including every person associated with the program knows that. It's only been six games, but it's been a heck of a six games.