Another season, another five-part preview as we look ahead to the 2012 UCLA baseball season, which will get underway on February 17th when the Bruins take on Maryland at Jackie Robinson Stadium. As we look to the season, we get started with Part 1 a general 2011 review and 2012 preview with a look at the state of the program. 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.
The 2011 UCLA baseball season will be remembered as a disappointment. Teams are judged on how they finish seasons and while the Bruins may have made it to the Regional final, dropping the opening game of the Regional as the number one seed and failing to get out of a home Regional is always going to be disappointing. Coming off of a appearance in the College World Series Championship Series the year before, well, that disappointment is only magnified.
To just call the 2011 season a disappointment would be a shame though. It didn't live up to the 2010 season and it did not end the way anyone wanted it to, but the 2011 Bruins were still the first team in school history to be crowned outright conference champions in 25 years. They hosted a Regional for the second consecutive year and finally made good on the program's unfulfilled promise of the last several decades. UCLA is finally a top-notch baseball program.
Nobody is going to toss UCLA around with the Texas' and South Carolina's of the college baseball world, but 2011 proved that the Bruin baseball program is several steps above where it has always been. Disappointment isn't new to UCLA baseball, but throughout its history, that disappointment would come when a team with a slew of future MLB players finished third in the conference and would fail to make the postseason. That became the standard of disappointment at UCLA. The idea of winning the Pac-10 and hosting a Regional can be a season if disappointment would have been foreign to this baseball program, but last season proved that is where the program is now. It has raised the bar.
What that raised bar means that the Bruins can lose top five picks in the MLB Draft and not be expected to take a gigantic step back. Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer are gone, but the Bruins are still expected to have one of the better starting staffs around. A trio of right-handed sophomores, Adam Plutko, Zack Weiss and Nick Vander Tuig are now the weekend rotation that will be expected to stand toe-to-toe with any weekend staff in the country and if last season was any indication, they're up for the task.
Where the real problem might be is behind that trio, but that's not exactly a new problem for the Bruins. For all the flack that the offense took last season, the Bruins were done in most by a thin bullpen and that could be a problem again this season. Plutko, Weiss and Vander Tuig are the only three pitchers on the staff who threw more than 18 innings last year and freshman Grant Watson will be the staff's only left-hander. Without Cole and Bauer around to go eight or nine innings every time out, that bullpen won't get the two-game reprieve they got a year ago either. The bullpen will be tested and head coach John Savage will have his reputation as a pitching guru put to the test as he tries to turn a bunch of talented, but very inexperienced hurlers into a bullpen that he can turn to game in, game out.
Just because the offense took all of the heat for the bullpen last year doesn't mean the offense didn't deserve the criticism they got. Simply put, .263 isn't going to cut it. The Bruins have to hit better and with a trio of juniors in the outfield, another at third and a couple more floating around the lineup, there's no excuse not to hit the ball this year. There is simply too much experienced talent not to.
Most of last season's struggles were attributed to the new bats and to be fair, Savage indicated before the season that he thought the new bats might affect the Bruins more than most teams. Then the Bruins went out and lowballed even his expectations, but they have a whole years under their belts with the bats now and the hits have to come around.
The two big names in the UCLA baseball program are gone, but this year's team is actually similar to last season's. The starting staff should be stout and the defense should be among the best around, but after that? The bullpen is one gigantic question mark and an offense short on power, but high on athleticism will have to come good and that "have to" is no joke either with a trip to Georgia on the schedule, as well as visits from Baylor, Maryland, Purdue and a very good Pac-12 looming. The schedule is going to be tough and as is the case in this new erra of UCLA baseball, the expectations are still high.
Before last season, Savage said: "The mindset this year is the bar has been raised. 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."
That was a team coming off of a season in which they obliterated pretty much ever school record and were one of the last two teams standing. Then that team went out and won the conference and hosted a Regional and were still considered a disappointment. Yeah, Coach, the bar has been raised.