Through 20 games this season, #6 UCLA is undefeated and looking down the barrel at one of the best season's in program history. After tonight's game versus Pepperdine, the Bruins will begin conference play with Stanford in town on Thursday, Friday and Saturday to begin the most important part of the season. A stretch of seven games, beginning Thursday versus Stanford and culminating on April 11th in Corvallis, Oregon will tell us just how good this team is, but just how good are they to this point?
The 2010 edition of the UCLA baseball team is pretty damn good at 20-0 with the nation's best ERA and a top-20 rank in scoring. That's a far cry from last year's team, which didn't make it to the postseason, only won 27 games on the season and didn't pick up it's 20th win until its 41st game of the season. So what's been the key to the success of this year's Bruin team
"They've had a great togetherness really. Everything they do, they do together. They seem to be on the same page in their approach and they're very unselfish," said head coach John Savage. " We have very good leadership. Our four captains, Matt Grace, Dan Klein, Brett Krill and Justin Uribe doing a great job. They're sending a strong message and people are following their lead."
The UCLA baseball program has long had a reputation for being mentally weak and unable to come through when necessary, but the attitude change that starts with the leadership that Coach Savage spoke about seems to have changed that. Despite having lost some key players from last year's team, the Bruins have improved in close games and have flashed the toughness necessary to succeed in high pressure situations. After going 2-14 in one-run games a year ago, the Bruins are 3-0 in such games this season, including a thrilling eighth inning comeback victory over Cal Poly on Friday night.
Success for the Bruins isn't a complete shocker. With a rotation led by Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Rob Rasmussen and then having Garett Claypool midweek, UCLA was always going to have some success. A team with a pitching staff so dominant is never going to be a bad club, but it's the offense that has turned the team from one that's not too bad to one that's among the best in the country.
We've shown power which surprises me the most, but before the season, I was pretty optimistic about our offense. I thought we could run, I thought we were much more lefthanded. I thought we going to give some people matchups, difficult matchups with the versatility that we have and we've done all that," Savage said. Were much tougher outs and striking out a lot less. We have better skill in the short game. We're not a home run hitting team, we're more of a pressure offense and everyone is on the same page."
That offensive firepower has the Bruins ranked seventh nationally in batting average. They rank in the top three in the Pac-10 in nearly every major offensive category and have gone from striking out the third most in the conference last year to the third least in 2010. Combined with the conference's third-best fielding percentage, the Bruins have addressed their two biggest problems from a year ago.
One thing that those who regularly visit Jackie Robinson Stadium will notice is the constant changes in the lineup. The same nine guys are not penciled into the lineup every day. Through 20 games, ten pitchers have made multiple appearances this season, 18 position players have appeared in at least five games and 13 of those position players have made at least four starts. This is by design and something that the coaches have worked hard on making happen.
"We just have a lot of faith. Regardless of who we're putting out there, they're doing a good job and that's the sign of a good team," Coach Savage noted. "It's not about nine guys. It's not about Bauer and Cole and Klein. Matt Grace closed the game on Saturday. Trevor Brown caught the game on Friday night. We believe in our players and we have the versatility to do that and we'll keep continuing to do that."
An approach like this keeps players on their toes, but is only possible when players buy in 100%, as the Bruins have.
"The players have a lot of trust in what we're doing and belief their teammates. They know we're going to play a lot of guys. They know we don't have a set lineup. We're giving our younger guys an opportunity to get their feet on the ground in Division I baseball."
While the younger guys are getting their feet on the ground in Division I baseball, UCLA is setting the Division I baseball world on fire. Day after day, the Bruins litter the national college baseball publications. They haven't just caught the eye of the writers either. While the writers have taken notice, the college baseball fans have begun to express not just their amazement with what UCLA has done, but have begun to complain for what they believe are low rankings.
The Bruins are rolling and for all the hype that the outstanding staff has gotten or Tyler Rahmatulla or another player has gotten, it truly is a team, beyond the nine guys, that is putting together such outstanding results. It's a mindset, an attitude, a team. It's a team that the national writers are behind, a team that the national fans are behind and with Pac-10 play upon us, one that the Bruin fans are starting to get behind. Now comes that hard part, but this team has given no indication that the hard part will be any different than first 20. Even so, as Coach Savage made sure to point out, "on Thursday, we're 0-0."