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UCLA Baseball: Did the Bruins Meet Expectations in 2018?

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The team went 38-21, finished 4th in the PAC 12, and didn’t escape the Minneapolis Regional, but does that tell the whole story?

Dan Liebig/ASUCLA/uclabruins.com

Arkansas and Oregon State will play the final game of the 2018 college baseball season this evening in Game Three of the Championship Series of the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. With the college baseball season coming to an end, and after chewing on the Bruins’ exit from the postseason a few weekends ago, it now seems appropriate to reflect back on UCLA’s season to see if the 2018 iteration of the UCLA Bruin Baseball team met expectations.

The short answer is “no,” it did not.

Head Coach John Savage will tell you that, as will likely each and every player on the 2018 Bruins squad.

But, like many things in life, it is a bit more complication than that.

Let’s start with Bruins Nation’s own thoughts and expectations going into the season. In my February 14th season preview, after analyzing the starting pitchers, the bullpen, and the field players, I made the following remarks:

This team is very young and has a ton of potential. There is a College World Series team in there somewhere. But several players need to step up their game from 2017. Starting infielders hitting in the .230 to .240 range is a good place to start. Those guys—Strumpf, Kreidler, and Stronach— need to be hitting at least 40 points higher.

The return of Kyle Molnar is also critical. If he can find his 2016 form, UCLA should be able to secure a lot of series wins this season.

Finally, I would love to see Brian Gadsby become the closer we all had hoped he would be. Was it asking to much of him to replace David Berg? Yes, yes it was. Unfortunately, the sidearm delivery was about all Gadsby had in common with Berg in his first two seasons at UCLA. Hopefully season number three will see a revitalized Brian Gadsby.

If all of those factors fall into place, UCLA could be a force to be reckoned with and could be making in appearance in Omaha in June.

Although several returning starting infielders upped their game from the plate, especially Chase Strumpf (who was named as a postseason All American and to the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team), Michael Toglia, and Jack Stronach (not to mention the emergence of Kevin Kendall over Ryan Kreidler at shortstop), the remainder of my anticipated keys to success did not come to fruition.

Kyle Molnar pitched one, single inning this season after being brought along slowly from June, 2016 Tommy John surgery, and then he was immediately shut down for the remainder of the season. Although we at BN are rooting for Molnar’s triumphant return, after throwing one inning in two full seasons, who knows what his future holds for Kyle at this point?

Brian Gadsby ended the season with a 6.23 ERA and did not pitch for the Bruins over the final 2 and 12 months of the season. Not what we had hoped for. The Bruins turned to freshman Holden Powell for most of the closing duties, and he was satisfactory, garnering a 2-1 record, six saves, and a 3.51 ERA (which needs to be lower for a closer).

Clearly, several of the factors I listed in the preseason preview did not fall into place, and the Bruins did not make an appearance in Omaha, let alone the Corvallis Super Regional, where they would have headed had they escaped Minneapolis.

There was, however, one other major factor that hurt UCLA’s chances.

Preseason All American starting pitcher Jon Olsen missed most of the season due to injuries, starting with a fractured orbital bone suffered on March 11th after being hit in the face with a line drive on the bat of Southern Cal’s Lars Nootbaar in the Dodger Stadium College Baseball Classic. Although he made a few more appearances after bouncing back, Olsen was then shut down for the rest of the season due to further injury.

Olsen’s absence resulted in a true freshman, Zach Pettway, moving into the Saturday slot, where he did well, earning Freshman All American honors. Ryan Garcia moved into the Sunday slot, and turned in an incredible 8-1, 2.23 ERA performance on the year.

It was the trickling down further, however, where the losses of Olsen and Molnar affected the Bruins. Jack Ralston—a sophomore who did not play last season and redshirted in 2016— became the fourth/midweek starter and UCLA’s midweek game performance suffered behind a pitcher new to the college game. It was not all Ralston’s fault, and Bruins still went 4-3 in the seven games Ralston (1-4, 6.44 ERA) started.

Unfortunately, this drop in performance was never more apparent than on the biggest stage, when UCLA was forced into a fourth, elimination game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers on their home field, with Ralston scheduled to pitch in his first postseaon game. Ralston gave up four runs in 1 and 13 innings, and the Bruins collectively gave up 13 runs in the first four innings, ultimately falling 13-8 and sparing Ralston the loss. Ralston, in his defense, ran into a buzz saw in a hostile enviorment; the Golden Gophers were on an eleven game winning streak, including the extra inning win over UCLA one day earlier.

Also, it must be noted that UCLA only found themselves in the losers’ bracket and the resulting fourth pitcher situation because they couldn’t hold a 2-1 lead against Minnesota going into the 8th inning in the game the day before. The Gophers tied in the 8th, and then won it, 3-2, in the 10th, sending the Bruins to a loser’s bracket game against Gonzaga the next morning, where they had to use Garcia.

That extra inning loss was critical. It would have been much, much better having Ryan Garcia start in an afternoon, non-elimination game against a Minnesota (or Gonzaga) team that would have already played a morning game and would then have been starting its fourth starter, rather than their third starter.

So close, yet so far.

I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m coming down on Ralston because I like the kid and think he can make huge strides—like Garica did this year—going into next season, his junior year. Due to unfortunate circumstances, Ralston was put into a tough situation by Coach Savage but I hope that this experience galvanizes him into becoming a better pitcher in 2019. I have high hoped for him.

So, the season did not meet expectations and there were some important reasons outside UCLA’s control (injuries to Molnar and Olsen) that affected this result. But, did the Bruins at least improve from last season?

In 2017, UCLA went 30-27, 19-11 in the PAC 12 (3rd place), and went 0-2 in the postseason. Going into this season, preseason pundits were high on the Bruins, with all major publications placing them between #10 and #14 in the nation.

UCLA went 38-21 (a six and 12 game improvement), 19-11 in the PAC 12 (4th place), and went 2-2 in the postseason, running into one of the hottest teams in the tournament, the Minnesota (which quickly cooled off at the Corvallis Super Regional, losing two straight, after dispatching the Bruins in Minneapolis). Of course, Oregon State is playing today for all the marbles so there is no shame in that. But I digress . . .

Placement as a number two seed against the #14 seeded Golden Gophers in the NCAA tournament regional suggests that UCLA was thought by the committee to be around #19 in the nation. Lower than the preseason predictions but not too bad considering the losses of Molnar and Olsen.

Looking back, there were some great moments in 2018 but, ultimately, UCLA did not perform to expectations. Better than last year, but not good enough for this year. Grading out the team as a whole, UCLA gets a C+ from me. The “plus” is for the six and 12 game improvement in overall record and winning two games in the postseason. Getting to the Super Regional would have earned a B grade and getting to Omaha would have garnered an A.

After the 2018 Major League Baseball Draft, and depending on some decisions that need to be made, it is not unreasonable to say that UCLA looks to be stocked for a run in 2019. Much more will be expected of that team. Hope abounds for 2019.

I hope that you enjoyed Bruins Nations’ coverage of UCLA Baseball this season. See ya next year.

Go Bruins!