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UCLA Baseball Season Preview: Part Two

Griffin Canning and Kyle Molnar should be reliable starters. Uncertainty abounds with the rest of the staff.

UCLA's Griffin Canning
UCLA's Griffin Canning
uclabruins.com

Welcome to Part Two of Bruins Nations’ UCLA Baseball season preview. First pitch of the season is tomorrow, Friday, February 17th, at 6 p.m. PT at Jackie Robinson Stadium. The Bruins will square off against the San Jose State Spartans in a three game series. Be sure to look for BN’s series preview tomorrow.

On Tuesday, in Part One of BN’s season preview, we addressed the fact that UCLA is not ranked in any of the preseason polls and lost most of its 2016 starting lineup. There is great uncertainty at certain everyday positions and at least some freshman will need to step up for the Bruins to have a successful season. Today, we will look at the pitchers, the coaching staff, and prognosticate about the season.

Pitching

Anticipating that UCLA will not be a juggernaut at the plate this season, it is not unreasonable to expect that the UCLA pitching staff will need to improve dramatically on last year’s performance, which was a true down year for what is usually an outstanding staff. Losing arguably the best closer of all time and a sure fire Friday starter from the 2015 season, the 2016 Bruin pitching staff suffered at the midweek starter position and, frankly, the bullpen was awful. UCLA’s team ERA was 4.70, the worst for a UCLA team since 2007 and more than twice as high at UCLA’s 2.17 team ERA in 2015

Friday Starter

This is a no-brainer. Griffin Canning will be UCLA’s Friday starter. Canning started 15 games last season, going 5-8 with a 3.70 ERA. Although his record was less than stellar, Canning did not get a ton of run support, and lost some games that should have been Bruins victories had UCLA been able to plate a few runs. Canning threw four complete games in 2015, and had 95 strikeouts on the season to lead the team.

Griffin Canning has been named to the third team Baseball America’s Preseason All American Team and is also one of 55 players to be named to The Golden Spikes Award watch list. A junior, this should be Canning’s last season at the collegiate level.

Saturday Starter

Last season’s Saturday starter was Grant Dyer, who was moved from Friday starter to the Saturday spot after some early season injury woes. UCLA will miss Dyer’s wicked curve ball. In their PAC 12 preview, Baseball America appeared to tab either Jake Bird or Justin Hooper as UCLA’s Saturday starter, without mentioning what I believe to be the obvious choice: Kyle Molnar.

As a freshman, Molnar was excellent as UCLA’s Sunday starter, with a 5-5 record and a 3.32 ERA, second best of all UCLA hurlers. I expect to see him taking the mound on Saturdays.

Sunday and Midweek Starters

Maybe Baseball America knows something that I do not, but both Jake Bird and Justin Hooper had terrible seasons in 2016. I am not confident in either as Sunday starter or the midweek starter. I hope that I am wrong.

Last season, Bird started seven games, going 1-6 with a 6.36 ERA. Hooper started one game, making 14 appearances, and went 1-1 with an 18.00 ERA. Frankly, I do not have a clue who Coach Savage will use in this role, or the midweek starter role. Four pitchers started games other than Canning, Dyer, and Molnar in 2016: Bird, Hooper, Jon Olson, and Hunter Virant. Virant is gone, but Olson might see some action either on Sunday or midweek. Freshman lefthander, Nick Scheidler, could get some starts. So could freshman righty, Ryan Garcia.

Closer

As a freshman, Brian Gadsby got off to a great start and some Bruins fans had visions of the next David Berg. And that’s not just because Gadsby has a similar sidearm delivery; he pitched really well early in the season.

Well, the wheels came off the bus after Gadsby had a significant hand (allowing 4 earned runs, two hits, and two hit batters) in UCLA blowing a 9th inning, 5-1, lead in the rubber match at Arizona. IMO, this was THE turning point of the season for the entire team, and Gadsby’s confidence appears to be shot after that performance. Gadsby finished with a 4.54 ERA but many of the save opportunities after that fateful game in Tucson (rightfully) went to then-junior Moises Ceja, who led UCLA in ERA at 2.60.

Will Coach Savage go back to Gadsby in the closer role, or will he go with the senior, Ceja? Time will tell.

Set Up Man

Ceja was originally used as the set up pitcher before Gadsby’s struggles last season. If he is not the closer, Ceja should be the player Coach Savage looks to in set up situations.

Middle Relief

With so much uncertainty at two of the starter positions, the closer position, and the set-up man position, it is difficult to predict who will be called on in middle relief roles. Notwithstanding last year’s performance, Coach Savage is usually a master at controlling his staff. I hope that he finds the magic touch with the bullpen that he had in 2015.

Coaching

John Savage enters his 13th season as UCLA’s Head Coach. After winning it all in 2013, Coach Savage has had two losing seasons in 2014 and 2016, and underachieved in the postseason as the top seed in 2015, failing to advance out of the Los Angeles Regional. IMO, he still has plenty of good will among the UCLA faithful with the 2013 National Championship and two other College World Series appearances in 2010, when the Bruins finished as runners up, and 2012. Coach Savage, a master at handling a pitching staff, has a .582 winning percentage at UCLA, going 419-301-1 in twelve seasons.

Rex Peters remains UCLA’s hitting and outfield coach, a position he has held for the past five seasons. Bryant Ward returns for his second season as infield coach and assistant hitting coach. This will be Nick Gallego’s third season as volunteer coach. Gallego, a former UCLA player, helps with the infield and hitting.

Prediction

As discussed in Part One, UCLA has lots of holes to fill in the starting lineup. Aside from Griffin Canning and Kyle Molnar, the Bruins also have much uncertainty on the pitching staff. While my head says that UCLA fans can expect a year similar to 2016 (losing record; no postseason), my heart tells me that the Bruins will be better this year.

Not too much better, but better. I see UCLA winning at least 30 games, making the postseason, and being shipped to a Regional far away from California, making it difficult for the Bruins to advance to the Super Regionals. At least two players will come out of nowhere to be significant contributors in the 2017 campaign.

That’s it for Part Two of Bruins Nation’s 2017 UCLA Baseball Season Preview. What do you think about the UCLA Baseball team’s chances this year? Do you have any thoughts on the Sunday and midweek starters? Give us your feedback in the comments section.

The season is just a day away.

Play ball!

And Go Bruins!!!