College World Series finalists a year ago, UCLA will kick off the season in just 11 days at Jackie Robinson Stadium (Photo Credit: Official Site)
Another season, another five-part preview as we look ahead to the 2011 UCLA baseball season, which will get underway on February 18th when the Bruins take on San Francisco at Jackie Robinson Stadium. Prior to last season I wrote up College Baseball 101 for those of you who want the basics of the game, specifically the things that differ from the pro game. As we look to 2011, we'll start here with Part 1, a general 2010 review and 2011 preview with a look at the schedule and key notes. Part 2 will look at the pitchers and Part 3, the position players. Part 4 will preview the Pac-10 and Part 5 will be a look at the country and where UCLA fits in the national scene.
If 2009 was a disappointment for the UCLA baseball program under head coach John Savage, 2010 was the highest point for the program, not just under Savage, but in the 90 years that the school has fielded a baseball team. The Bruins entered 2010 knowing that they had some pretty damn good starting pitching. Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer had strong freshman seasons then went off to play with the US National Collegiate Team in the summer, where they excelled. A strong fall and if nothing else, UCLA was going to have one of the best one-two punches in the country. The problem was that the offense, defense, Sunday starter and bullpen were big question marks. It didn't take them very long to answer those questions though.
The season started with a win, then another and then another. So winning all three games in the season's first weekend wasn't that impressive, after all, they hadn't beaten anyone very good. A fourth win gave the Bruins a chance to test themselves though in the Dodgertown Classic. A win over a very good Vanderbilt team opened some eyes, then they opened up a ton more as they beat USC in front of 14,588 fans at Dodger Stadium. Maybe this UCLA team really was something to be reckoned? Well if the Bruins' opponents in the first 22 games weren't so sure if UCLA was for real, they found out quickly as the Bruins got off to a blazing 22-0 start and jumped from preseason unranked to a top three team nationally.
UCLA started the 2010 season on February 19, but it wasn't until an April 2 contest against Stanford that they were dealt their first loss. A series against Arizona St. was hyped up around the country and considered one of the top series in college baseball all season, but the Bruins didn't live up to their end of the deal and were swept. Many began to fear that this would be like the UCLA teams of years past and fold, but the Bruins came battling back and won 11 of their final 12 Pac-10 contests to capture the number six national seed in the postseason, which mean that they would host a Regional at Jackie Robinson Stadium and if they qualified, a Super Regional.
In the Regional, some wondered if Savage had made a mistake in starting Cole in the opener against fourth seeded Kent St. Most number one seeds save their ace for the second game of the Regional, but Savage trusted the depth of his pitching staff and a win by Cole, win by Bauer and win by Rob Rasmussen sent the Bruins to the Super Regionals against Cal St. Fullerton. The Titans had long been the Bruins' kryptonite and it looked like that would be the case again. The Bruins lost game one of the best of three series and trailed by a run with two outs in game two, but a walk was followed by a dramatic two-run home run by Tyler Rahmatulla to give the Bruins the lead, eventually the win and with a game three win, a spot in the College World Series.
Having proven yet again that the 2010 Bruins were different that the Bruin teams that preceded them, UCLA went out to do something no other UCLA team had done before. In two previous trips to the College World Series, the Bruins had lost their first team games and been eliminated. A win over Florida in the opener was the first College World Series win in UCLA history and they followed it up with another win in the second game. A loss in their third game put the Bruins on the brink of elimination, but they came through again with a win to send them to the Championship Series.
In the Championship Series, the Bruins were defeated in consecutive games, ending their season and leaving them in tears. A great season was in the books and all Bruin fans could do was applaud their team, but it wasn't enough for the team.
Last week, seven months after their season came to an end with the national title so close Savage said, "It was the best year in school history, but we were disappointed." A new bar has been set in the UCLA baseball program and that takes the team into 2011.
Questions about the UCLA offense were answered last season. Despite having to replace most of the power and runs scored from a very bad 2009 offense, the 2010 offense stepped forward and managed to generate runs. A lot of that boost came from a crop of freshmen that gave the Bruins some much needed left-handed balance in the lineup, but some of the returning players also found their niche and almost all of that offense in back in 2011.
That 2010 offense did the job without a ton of power. A batch of home runs opened some eyes, but that trailed off as the season went on and the team managed to put runs on the board without the long ball, for the most part. What the Bruins did well was run the bases aggressively, do the little things necessary to move runners along and come through with runners in scoring position.
All of the things that UCLA did well last season will be paramount if they are to score runs in 2011. This season the NCAA has instituted new rules on bats and now the metal bats that the teams can use do not have nearly the pop of the bats from past seasons. Most of the fall and winter has been dominated by the talk of the bats and how difficult it is to drive the ball with the bats. Power will be down all around the country and the ability to move runners along, find gaps and run the bases aggressively will be key to all teams. The days of mashing the ball all season to wins appear to be in the rearview mirror.
"The bats are going to change the game. I think you're going to see less of an offensive game. This bat is playing a lot more like wood that it ever has. We're not complaining about it. We're going to play with whatever bats they give us," Savage said. "The game is going to be a lot more detailed, which is good for us. We can pitch against any bat and this bat makes everyone do what we like to do offensively."
While the style of the game may favor the Bruins, the schedule doesn't, or maybe it does depending on how one looks at it. As is always the case, the Bruins are playing one of the toughest schedules in the country and this year, their intended strength of schedule checks in as the seventh toughest in the country. Five of the six ahead of UCLA are fellow Pac-10 teams and the four remaining teams all have a top 15 strength of schedule, which is an indication of just how tough the Pac-10 will be in 2011. Most agree the conference is the toughest in the country and will be as good, if not better than they were a year ago when eight Pac-10 teams made it into a Regional.
Coming into 2011, the talk is about who can pitch for the Bruins. For all the hype around Cole and Bauer, all of which is deserved, the fact is that the Bruins have to replace 54% of their innings pitched from 2010. Cole and Bauer will give the Bruins a huge leg up on Fridays and Saturdays, but no one is sure what will happen on Sundays, Tuesdays and whenever Savage turns to the bullpen. There is a lot of talent filling those roles, but all of it young and/or inexperienced so nobody is quite sure if that talent can turn up and throw well when the lights go on. That said, the exact same question was asked before last season. There was talent after Cole and Bauer, but not much proven and it worked out just fine.
If the bullpen is the top question for the Bruins, the only other thing on the same level of concern is how UCLA handles the expectations. In 2008, UCLA was ranked number one in the preseason, but bottomed out and couldn't perform anywhere near expectations. The rap on the UCLA baseball program for a long time has been that there's plenty of talent, but they don't have what it takes between the ears. When things get tough, the Bruins fold. Last season, everyone was waiting on the Bruins to fold because that's what history dictated, but they didn't Now, UCLA will have the expectations and pressure from day one and will have to handle it from the first pitch of the season to the last.
"The mindset this year is the bar has been raised," Savage said. "Whenever you get to Omaha and have the year that we did, there are targets on our back and we've talked about everything. We've been very open with our players with expectations and the process of building off of last year knowing that it's a new season. We know the expectations and know what we have to do."
The expectations are certainly there in 2011. The four major polls have ranked the Bruins number one once, number two twice and number three once. With so much talent in college baseball this season, the cream of the crop is as good as it has been in a long time, yet there stand the Bruins with the rest of them. The bar has been set and the expectations are high. Last season was said to be year one of a new program, but a program is not built on one season. Now it's year two and the expectation is Omaha, a place that UCLA can say it's no stranger to anymore and at the mecca of college baseball, they're no stranger to succeeding either.