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UCLA Baseball: 2019 Season Preview—Omaha or Bust!!!

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With preseason national rankings in the #3 to #7 range, and UCLA predicted to win the Pac-12 by the conference’s head coaches, many think UCLA has the goods to make it to Omaha in 2019.

Will Ryan Garcia be the guy who takes over the Friday “ace” starter role for the Bruins in 2019? All signs point to “yes.”
Scott Chandler / uclabruins.com

Welcome, Bruin fans, to Bruins Nation’s UCLA Baseball 2019 Season Preview! UCLA, led by Head Coach John Savage in what will be his 15th season at the helm of the Bruins, welcomes the St. John’s Red Storm to Jackie Robinson Stadium this weekend to kick off the year. Although Friday’s game could be affected by the rain, the weekend is forecast to be clear and sunny. So, UCLA should be able to play all three games, even if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate on Friday night.

But this is a SEASON preview, not a SERIES preview (look for that on Friday). So, let’s talk about the season.

Overview

The Bruins return almost all of their position players from last season and, although there are a few question marks regarding the starting pitching rotation, most signs point to 2019 being a “peak” year for the Bruins. This has been reflected in the preseason prognostications.

Not only has UCLA been predicted to finish first in the Pac-12 in the conference’s preseason coaches’ poll, but the Bruins have also been very high in the preseason national rankings. Baseball America has the Bruins at #3, as does baseballnews.com. D1Baseball.com has them at #5, and USA Today has them at #7.

In last year’s season preview, I wrote that the 2018 team was young, had potential, and that there “was a College World Series team in there somewhere.” Well, it’s there, and this is the year, barring injury, as UCLA has the talent and the experience to be in Omaha in June.

Important Departures From 2018

Friday starter Jake Bird was selected by the Colorado Rockies in the fifth round of the Major League Baseball Draft. Bruins fans will miss Bird’s leadership and grittiness on the mound. UCLA also lost Jon Olsen to the draft. Olsen missed much of the season last year to injury, all of which started when he was drilled in the face by a batted ball versus Southern Cal at Dodger Stadium. Although he came back for a bit, he was hit with another setback and was shut down for the season. Olsen was selected by the Minnesota Twins.

The only starting “field” player from 2018 who is not back with the Bruins this season is center fielder Daniel Amaral, who was drafted last summer by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Bruins Nation wishes these three guys nothing but the best as they move into the next stage of their careers.

Starting Pitchers

One thing appears likely with respect to UCLA starting pitchers: Ryan Garcia and Zach Pettway should be the Bruins’ Friday and Saturday starters. In two of the past season previews—this will be my fifth season covering UCLA baseball—I have mistakenly picked the Saturday guy to be the Friday guy, and vice versa. I picked Jon Olsen over Jake Bird last year and Griffin Canning over Grant Dyer in 2016. I was wrong both times.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from those mistakes, it’s that Coach Savage values seniority in his Friday starter, which is the reason why I think we will see junior Ryan Garcia get tabbed to be the Friday starter, with sophomore Zach Pettway slotting into the Saturday starter position.

Garcia had a phenomenal season last year, starting 12 games and going 8-1 with a 2.23 earned run average. The righthander limited opponents to a .188 batting average (2nd in the Pac-12) and struck out 76 batters in 76 and 23 innings. Garcia started the year as the midweek starter and seamlessly transitioned into the Sunday role after Olsen went down, bumping Pettway from Sunday to Saturday. If Garcia can replicate his 2018 numbers in the Friday “ace” role, UCLA will be in great shape.

Pettway, a true freshman last year, started hot in the Sunday starter role, beginning the season 5-0. He then hit a bit of a slump in the second half of the season after moving into the Saturday starter’s role, going 3-4 the rest of the way to finish 8-4 with a 3.35 ERA. Pettway led the team in strikeouts with 78 and should be rock solid this year for the Bruins.

After that, things get murky. It is unknown if junior lefthander Justin Hooper, who missed all of last season with Tommy John surgery, is ready to go. If the big lefty (Hooper is 6’8’) is healthy, I think he pitches on Sundays (but maybe Saturday).

That’s a big “if.” We thought Kyle Molnar was ready to go after similar surgery kept him out in 2017, but he only pitched one inning as a junior last season, and no longer appears to be with the program. Hopefully this is not the case with Hooper.

The midweek starter’s role figures to go to one of the freshmen. UCLA had the #6 class in the nation last year, highlighted by a couple of guys who could start, including Nick Nastrini and Jesse Bergin. Hopefully, one of those guys steps up like Pettway did last year.

Bullpen

Sophomore Holden Powell stabilized the closer role last season saving six games and striking out 22 in 33 and 1/3 innings. Also returning are juniors Kyle Mora and Nick Scheidler.

Mora, a righty, appeared in 34 games for the Bruins in ’18, going 6-3 with a 1.89 ERA. He also saved three games and struck out 41 in 52 and 1/3 innings pitched.

Scheidler, a lefty who was generally pretty good in situational relief last season, also returns. He was 1-1 with a 3.97 ERA over 34 innings pitched.

Senior Nathan Hadley—one of only three seniors on the squad—hopes to bounce back from a tough 2018, going 0-1 with a 5.06 ERA over 10 and 2/3 innings.

There all also a handful of freshmen who will contribute, but who knows which of those guys will be major contributors at this time? It’s tough to tell. Hopefully, the addition of UCLA legend, David Berg, to Coach Savage’s staff will help some of UCLA’s younger arms, especially in the bullpen.

Infield

The Bruins return all of their starters from their 2018 infield, including two guys who will likely be high draft picks in the 2018 Draft, junior first baseman Michael Toglia and junior second baseman Chase Strumpf.

Everything came together nicely for Strumpf last year. Although he came up big in the clutch as a freshman in 2016 and his numbers improved in Pac-12 play, his overall average that year was only .231. THAT changed last year when Strumpf hit a scorching .363 to go along with 12 home runs, 23 doubles, and 53 RBI. And, many of those big hits came in the clutch, including a couple in the Minneapolis regional, where he earned All-Regional honors. Strumpf will look to continue in 2019 where he left off in 2018.

UCLA’s other big bat, Michael Toglia, the junior from Gig Harbor, Washington (every announcer feels obligated to say “Gig Harbor” at least one time in UCLA baseball television broadcasts) hit .336 with 11 homers and 58 RBI last year. And he edged Strumpf’s 23 doubles by doing one better, smashing 24 to lead the team and the Pac-12. The first baseman is also good with the glove for a man his size. He is also an ironman, starting all 59 of UCLA’s games last year. Toglia should have another monster year this season.

Kevin Kendall was a revelation at shortstop last season as a freshman. Ryan Kreidler started the season there but, after some error issues, Coach Savage inserted Kendell into the lineup at the shortstop position, and moved Kreidler over to third base. The move worked out well from a defensive and offensive standpoint, as Kendell won the job by hitting better than Kreidler and, more importantly, fielding the shortstop position better. Kendell, who was above the .300 mark for much of the season, tailed off a bit from the plate at the end of the year, hitting .278. One of the fastest guys on the team, expect Kendell to hit leadoff and steal a lot of bases in 2019.

The third base position is the most unsettled of the four infield positions. I expect Coach Savage to platoon two right handed bats and one lefthanded bat, depending on the opposing starting pitcher. Those guys are Kreidler, senior Jake Hirabayashi, who began his career at UCLA as a catcher but is listed as infielder on the roster this season, and Jack Stronach, a lefthanded bat to split duties there. Another possibility is Kyle Cuellar. After hitting over .300 as a freshman and leading the Bruins, the bottom fell out for Kyle last year when he hit only .115 with just 7 hits on the season. Listed as a “utility” player, Cuellar can get to playing again in the field or perhaps as the DH if he returns to his freshman season form.

Outfield

Jeremy Ydens will start the season in left field. With nothing guaranteed at the position last year, Ydens broke through and claimed left field, hitting .350 (second best on the team) and playing solid defense. He also had six home runs, 17 doubles and 38 RBI, good for third on the team in those offensive categories.

Garrett Mitchell, entering his sophomore year, will start in right field. Mitchell, a highly regarded prospect, was good—not great—last year, hitting .280, driving in 31 runs, and committing only two errors. I expect Mitchell to make big strides this season and if he blows up, man . . . UCLA—known for pitching and defense—could also be a dynamo on offense.

Freshman Matt McLain was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks last year but turned down a $2.6 million contract to play for and attend UCLA, which was his childhood dream. I already love this kid.

McLain played shortstop in high school but, with Kendall seemingly the starter there, it looks like McLain may be starting as the Bruins’ center fielder. He is listed as an infielder and outfielder on UCLA’s roster.

Catcher and Designated Hitter

The catcher position at UCLA is more about handling the pitchers and defense than it is about hitting. This explains why Coach Savage started the .159 hitting Daniel Rosica more than half of UCLA’s games last season. With Rosica graduated—and, by the way, don’t be surprised if this kid isn’t coaching somewhere soon—the guy who started the rest of UCLA’s games, junior Will McInerny, should be behind the dish for UCLA, even though he only hit .239 with one dinger and seven RBI in 2018.

But McInerney might be challenged by freshman Noah Cardenas, who had big hitting numbers his senior year in high school. Some pundits think Cardenas has the talent to start right now. I am not sure, however, if those pundits know Coach Savage like we know Coach Savage. My prediction is McInerny plays most of the time while Cardenas learns the ropes and spot starts this year, especially to build rapport with whomever the midweek starter is.

Or perhaps Cardenas fills the DH role. Or it could be Cuellar (if he is hitting like he did in 2017). Or whichever of the three who is not playing third base. And I haven’t even mentioned Jake Pries (.274, 1 HR, 18 RBI in 2018), the last of the three seniors, yet in this article.

Coach Savage truly has a lot of flexibility with the talent he has on this roster and the ability of several players to play multiple positions.

Expectations

This is the best UCLA team on paper from top to bottom since the 2015 squad. Ultimately, this team might be better than that one. But will they reach the heights of the 2013 National Championship or will they fall short of that mark?

I have no doubt that this team has it as one of its goals to make it to the College World Series in Omaha this year. I am going to adopt that high bar, making the College World Series my expectation for this team.

That’s right . . . Omaha or bust!!!

Here is the basis for my expectation: I do expect (as do most Pac-12 coaches) UCLA to win the Pac-12. Both Stanford and defending national champs Oregon State lost a lot after 2018, much more than UCLA did. Winning the Pac-12 would, no doubt, mean that the Bruins would host the Regional stage AND likely be set up to host a Super Regional (a top eight seed). I cannot imagine that the winner of the Pac-12 would receive anything less than an eight seed. With that seeding in hand, UCLA would play all postseason games at Jackie Robinson Stadium leading into Omaha. I don’t think it unreasonable that the Bruins would come out of the Regional and then beat whatever 9-16 seeded them they would face in the Super Regional.

That’s it for the UCLA Baseball season preview. I hope you enjoyed it. UCLA baseball is truly a labor of love for me.

Let me know if you agree with my expectations, if you have anything to add, or if I missed anything (it would not be the first time).


Go Bruins!!!