John Savage's squad is just getting going (Photo Credit: Scott Wu)
On February 20, UCLA was 1-2 on the young season and looking very much like their 2010-selves. They were struggling to hit and their bullpen was inexperienced and shaky. There was little to be excited about, but they have been a much better team in the last three weeks. They have pushed their record to 12-3, in large part to the 10-game win streak they're currently riding, and the number nine ranking in the country. All looks well and good at Jackie Robinson Stadium right now, but the truth is that all is not well and good -- and that is actually a good thing.
Nobody is going to argue against the Bruins' results. 10 consecutive wins, including a sweep of a previously top 10 ranked Georgia team in Athens, is impressive no matter how you do it. Teams that pull that off are getting the job done and right now, UCLA is getting the job done, but it is how they are getting the job done that raises eyebrows.
Pitching has carried UCLA teams since John Savage took the reigns of the program. Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer were the big names in the last three years and did more than their fair share to help their teams rack up wins, but the 2010 team also had Rob Rasmussen and a tremendous bullpen. Before that David Huff, Hector Ambriz and Tyson Brummett were carrying pitching staffs. No matter who the pitchers were, Savage's Bruin teams were anchored by outstanding pitching staffs, but that isn't the case so far this season.
Through 15 games in 2012, the Bruins have a team ERA of 3.22, which is good, but nothing special. It ranks 61st in the nation and nobody looks at the pitching staff and thinks, "they can win a weekend on their own." The Bruins don't have anything on the mound that is going to wow anybody.
If the pitching staff isn't going to put the team on its back then the offense has to be outstanding if a team is going to win 10 straight and race to number nine in the country, right? There isn't anything special about the UCLA offense. They are hitting .303 as a team, which is just 49th in the country. They aren't backing that up with much power either, checking in with just five home runs, which is 154th in the country. The result is 6.5 runs per game, which is a respectable number, but just 62nd in the nation and hardly anything to brag about.
Teams that aren't pitching or hitting sensationally usually get the job done with the gloves, though. That is what is at the heart of a good, fundamental, grind it out team that doesn't have the goods to wow you on the mound or at the plate, but the Bruins already have 20 errors this season and their .964 fielding percentage is 147th in the country.
The Bruins don't have numbers that indicate they are a top 10 team, except for one. They are 12-3 and winners of 10 straight. At some point, results don't lie so how is UCLA getting the job done?
Much of UCLA's success has been due to timing. They may not be an excellent hitting team, but they pick up clutch hits when they need it, like on Saturday when it took them until the fifth inning to to get their first base runner and then turned that first base runner into a three-run inning. They may not field the ball exceptionally, but they turned two double plays on Sunday to bail out a pitching staff that was giving away free passes left and right. They might not be a great pitching team, but when the Bruins needed to make a statement in their first game against Georgia, Adam Plutko tossed a complete game shutout.
As important as it is to hit, pitch and field the ball, it is equally important to time when you hit, pitch and field the ball. If nothing else, that is something that UCLA has got down pat so far. That, along with the mental toughness they have shown early on to win so many games in which they fail to get out in front early and you have the makings of a successful team, impressive numbers or not.
What is most encouraging for UCLA, though, is that they have not been exceptional. Cody Regis has hit .111 with just one extra base hit and Beau Amaral has hit just .238 with two extra base hits. Nick Vander Tuig and Zack Weiss have combined to walk 4.2 batters per nine innings and Pat Valaika already has six errors. There are plenty of places where the Bruins are struggling, and they are not places where they are likely to continue to struggle.
Regis is a .298 career hitter and let the Bruins in home runs the last two seasons, while Amaral is a career .327 hitter. Both Vander Tuig and Weiss are walking more than a batter more per nine innings than they did last season and Valaika committed just nine errors all of last season. The struggles some of the Bruins are going through now are not the kind of struggles that figure to be around for the entire season.
Besides the areas where the Bruins are struggling, there are other areas where they are doing fine, but figure to get better and the bullpen leads that list. All of the concern about the relievers entering the season centered around their inexperience, but they have been solid so far, even on the road. As the season goes on, they are only going to get more experienced and their biggest weakness will slowly fade away.
The Bruins aren't playing their best right now, or even near it. Regis and Amaral will start hitting. Vander Tuig and Weiss will start finding the plate. Valaika will start catching and throwing the ball. The bullpen will be able to add experience to their talent. There are a lot of areas where the Bruins have a lot of room to get better.
Teams with a lot of room to improve aren't usually ranked in the top 10, but the Bruins are. They're winning and they only figure to get better. Their weaknesses won't be so weak anymore and that will add to their timing and toughness. So UCLA isn't playing exceptionally well? That's the beauty of this Bruin team. What happens when a top 10 team gets better? We're going to find out.