As the baseball season creeps up on us, it is time for another five-part season preview, which will take us all the way up to February 15th when the Bruins take on Minnesota at Jackie Robinson Stadium. To get ready, we start with a general 2012 review and 2013 preview in Part 1. Part 2 will look at the pitchers and Part 3, the position players. Part 4 will preview the Pac-12 and Part 5 will be a look at the country and where UCLA fits in the national scene.
Once upon a time, a trip to Omaha was a dream too big for UCLA. They had been to the College World Series just twice in the first 63 years of the event and had comfortably settled into their role as perennial underachievers unable to make good on their many natural advantages.
But everything changed in 2010.
UCLA, anchored by one of the nation's best pitching staffs, made it to the College World Series for the first time in their history. They got their riding an excellent regular season and home-field advantage in the Regionals and Super Regionals, a first for UCLA. The Bruins also picked up their first ever College World Series win in 2010, then their second, and third, advancing to the Championship Series. There, they ran into the buzz saw that was eventual back-to-back national champion South Carolina, but the Bruins had broken through and made a point -- UCLA was ready to take its place as a national power.
The following season ended with a disappointing elimination in the Regionals, but it wasn't a lost season. The Bruins captured the conference title outright for the first time since 1986 and were once again named Regional hosts as UCLA proved that they weren't leaving the national conversation anytime soon.
The 2012 season brought more of the same for UCLA, as they made it back-to-back Pac-12 titles, sharing the crown with Arizona. The result was the No. 2 national seed and home Regionals and Super Regionals. Buoyed by their home crowd and a good mix of young and old players, the Bruins blasted their way through the first two rounds of the postseason, winning five consecutive games by a combined score of 33-9 and advancing to the College World Series for the second time in three years.
Omaha didn't treat UCLA as well in 2012 as it did in 2010, though. After thrashing Stony Brook in the opening game, the Bruins' bats went silent in consecutive losses. They scored just one run and totaled only 10 hits as they bowed out and went home without that elusive national championship.
But did the Bruins underachieve in 2012? It's tough to argue that losing to the eventual national champions and No. 3 national is underachieving, even if the way the Bruins meekly was disappointing. What is revealing is that it is even a question.
Just three years ago, UCLA were perennial underachievers and the bar the by which they were measured by was "did they make a Regional?" That has changed. Now a season that ends in Omaha can bring up the "underachieving" label, even if sometimes unfairly. The program has made incredible strides and the bar in Westwood is now higher than it has ever been.
As the Bruins prepare for 2013, the goal is clear -- Omaha or bust.
The expectation for UCLA has become the College World Series, which is incredible and would have been unbelievable three years ago, but it is true. Such are the expectations for the best programs in the country, a group that the Bruins are undoubtedly a part of now.
John Savage will have a new challenge in 2013, though, as he tries to rebuild his lineup. While players have come and gone in the last couple seasons, Savage has yet to be tasked with maintaining this high level of program after losing as much of his lineup as he lost after last season.
Gone are Jeff Gelalich, Beau Amaral, Cody Keefer, Trevor Brown and Tyler Heineman, who accounted for 70% of the Bruins' home runs, 61% of the RBI and 62% runs in 2012. More importantly, the five had been around since the Bruins' run to Omaha in 2010, providing valuable leadership up and down the lineup, as well as in the field.
UCLA does have plenty of experienced bats to replace them, including an entire infield of players who played at least 30 games last season, but all of them will be asked to take on bigger roles than ever before. Add in an inexperienced outfield and the Bruins have question marks. They are very talented question marks, but question marks nonetheless.
But while the Bruins have the new challenge of overhauling their lineup, they have their always-outstanding pitching staff to lean upon, and year's staff is primed to be even better than usual.
All four starting pitchers from a year ago are back, as are ace setup man Ryan Deeter and relief wizard David Berg. The only notable pitcher from a year ago absent is Scott Griggs, but his role diminished as the season went on and Berg ate up inning after inning. The six returning pitchers are also joined by a trio of outstanding freshmen, all of whom were drafted and all of whom are threatening to push some of the returning pitchers out of their roles. With nine pitchers in the fold, UCLA may have the deepest staff in Savage's tenure.
The preseason polls have UCLA ranked anywhere between second and 12th, which is to be expected for an uber talented team, but one that has some holes to fill with so mant departures at the plate. Wherever the Bruins are slotted in your poll of choice, though, one thing is clear -- they are in the College World Series discussion.
The goal is Omaha, but now so is the expectation. Oh, how things change in three years.