Jan. 19, 2005
For the first time in 30 years, the UCLA baseball team has a new head coach. John Savage will begin his first year at the helm of UCLA baseball in the spring of 2005 and will take over a team full of young arms and eager bats. After losing eleven players from last years squad, including ten who went on to play professionally, Savage and his new core of assistant coaches will rely heavily on a solid group of experienced pitchers, versatile position players and potent hitters to help guide UCLA to its first back-to-back post-season appearances in school history.
"Our expectations are very high coming into 2005," Savage said. "We expect to come out and play at a very high level throughout the season and then maintain that momentum for years to come."
UCLA returns 21 lettermen from last season's NCAA regional qualifying team, including ten pitchers and three starting position players. The losses of All-Americans Wes Whisler and Casey Janssen and All Pac-10 selections Ryan McCarthy, Brandon Averill, Preston Griffin and Matt Thayer, will be offset by the new roles that will be played by injury-free Hector Ambriz, team captains Chris Denove and Brett McMillan and newcomers like Kris Kasarjian, Eric Taylor and Tommy Lansdon.
"Our expectations are very high coming into 2005. We expect to come out and play at a very high level throughout the season and then maintain that momentum for years to come."
Head Coach John Savage
"When you think of leaders, Denove and McMillan are great examples of older guys who have accepted a new coaching staff and become examples for the younger guys," Savage said. "Denove and McMillan are the heart of this team."
After last season's third place finish in the Pac-10, UCLA will be the target for which many teams are aiming. The Bruins will play 21 games against nine different 2004 NCAA tournament teams, including two against defending national champs Cal State Fullerton and three Pac-10 contests against College World Series participant Arizona. After capturing the school's 2,000th all-time victory during their regional appearance in Oklahoma City last season, the Bruins will be chasing several other milestones in 2005, including their first back-to-back 30-win seasons since 2000-2001.
On the Mound...
With 13 pitchers on the 2005 squad, playing time on the mound figures to be highly competitive. The Bruins' starting rotation, which will consist of a battle between at least a half-dozen hurlers, will feature three weekend starters and a midweek starter. In competition for those jobs are right-handers Bryan Beck, Adam Simon, Brant Rustich, Ambriz, Daniel Miltenberger and Brendan Lafferty.
"We really like the depth of the arms we have in our starting rotation," Savage said. "We've got guys with above average, Division I arms. It's just a matter of having them fulfill their potential and turning them into complete pitchers."
UCLA's bullpen also figures to be a source of competition, like in 2004 when the Bruins used 14 different pitchers in relief situations. Savage, also the Bruins' pitching coach, will have nine right-handers and five left-handers to choose from when making his pitching decisions. With relievers like sophomore right-hander Kevin Brophy and southpaws junior Daniel Reid, junior Garrett White and sophomore Brian Schroeder on call, UCLA's relief core should prove to be one of the most reliable in the Pac-10.
"Our bullpen is going to be a big part of our success," Savage said. "We've got guys who can come in and throw strikes, hold runners and keep us in ball games. It's imperative that all good teams in the Pac-10 and in the post-season have strong bullpens and we're looking at bullpen depth of about eight to ten guys with anyone able to contribute at any given time."
Beck, UCLA's lone senior on the staff, is expected to make great strides as one of the Bruins' leading starters.
"Bryan brings a ton of Pac-10 experience," Savage said. "We need him to be a major contributor to our staff this season and we're looking for him to become a leader."
Simon and Rustich, two other front-runners for a starting job, have both made large improvements in the off-season and have impressed their new head coach.
"Rustich has one of the best arms in the country," Savage said. "He's really developed over the past summer and we're expecting him to be a frontline starter for our program over the next couple of years and we're looking for Simon to be a legitimate division one, Pac-10 starter as well. He's an unbelievable competitor.
"Guys like Simon, Ambriz, Beck and Miltenberger are to our pitching staff what Denove and McMillan are to our position players - they're leaders."
Others that figure to play integral roles in shaping the Bruins' formidable pitching staff are junior right-hander Scott Botterman, junior left-hander Paul Oseguera, and freshman right-hander Jason Zinser.
Despite the departures of three members from last year's starting infield core, the Bruins do not expect to feel much of a letdown. Returning to his post at first base will be McMillan, a junior who last year blasted six home runs and 38 RBI. UCLA will field an entirely new left side of the infield with newcomer sophomores Eric Taylor and Tommy Lansdon. The second base position figures to feature a mix of able-bodied utility infielders like Sean Smith, Kevin Conlin and Sean Carpenter.
"With Taylor, Lansdon and McMillan anchoring our infield, I think we should be playing very solid defense," Savage said. "Assistant Coach Brian Green has done an outstanding job working with them. In addition, our infield depth, with guys like Smith, Carpenter, Conlin and Nolan Rouse, should be solid."
Taylor, a transfer from North Carolina State, is expected to take over as UCLA's starting third baseman in 2005 after hitting .274 with four home runs for the Wolfpack in 2004.
"Eric can really play," Savage said. "He should be able to come in and hit in the middle of our line up right away."
Lansdon, who transferred to UCLA this winter from Oxnard Community College, should anchor the shortstop position for the Bruins. A two-time All-NBC Tournament selection, the six-foot right-hander should make an immediate impact.
"We're looking for Lansdon to come in right away and contribute in the middle of our infield," Savage said.
Smith, who redshirted last season after transferring from Loyola Marymount where he was the 2002 West Coast Conference Freshman of the Year, should contribute at the plate as well as providing middle infield depth at either second base or shortstop. Conlin, another 2004 redshirt will return to establish even more offensive and defensive prowess for the Bruins.
"Conlin is an exceptional athlete who can play all three infield positions for us," Savage said. "His versatility and his athletic ability are really what stand out to us."
Savage also has Carpenter, a 5-11 junior who started 12 games in 2004, to throw into the infield mix.
"Carpenter is one of the most versatile guys on the team," the head coach said. "He can play second base and outfield. He plays extremely hard and he'll bring plenty of experience."
Nolan Rouse, a redshirt sophomore transfer from Mt. San Antonio College, will also play an important role in providing depth to the middle infield.
When it comes to having options, Coach Savage will have plenty when filling the Bruins outfield. From returning two-sport standout Jarrad Page to newcomers like Mike Metzger, UCLA's outfield will be peppered with talent despite the losses of leadoff hitter and right fielder Matt Thayer and fellow outfielder Billy Susdorf.
"The outfield is one of our stronger positions," Savage explains. "We have five or six guys that are all different, but they're all complete Division I players."
Page, who blasted three home runs as one of UCLA's starting center fielders in 2004, will return from the football field and accompany fellow veterans like 6-3 junior Josh Roenicke, Will Penniall, Chris Jensen and Anthony Norman. Between those five, Page leads the way in terms of experience but Roenicke and Penniall are not far behind. Roenicke, a right-handed hitter, batted .273 in 31 games last season while Penniall, a switch hitter, posted a .421 slugging percentage in just 14 contests in 2004.
"Josh Roenicke has the best arm among our outfielders and is a very solid hitter," Savage said. "He may see time in center or right field.
"Penniall is a great worker, "Savage continued. "He's a switch hitter who can run and really contribute from both sides of the plate."
Savage is also looking forward to the reemergence of Jensen, a .281 career hitter and another 2004 redshirt. Jensen will most likely see time in right field after appearing in over 30 games in both 2002 and 2003.
"Jensen probably has the most natural hitting stroke on our team, "the head coach said. "He's a guy that we think is going to have a breakout year - he'll be one of our best hitters."
Newcomers Kris Kasarjian and Metzger will also figure heavily into the outfield mix, according to Savage. Kasarjian, a sophomore junior college transfer was a 13th round pick of the Mariners in the 2004 draft while Metzger also has the ability to step right in and contribute in 2005.
"Mike Metzger is a legitimate Division I player, "Savage said. "He's a terrific outfielder with a good arm. In terms of freshmen, Metzger is a guy who can come in right away and compete in the Pac-10."
Behind the Plate...
With Denove anchoring the backstop for UCLA, the Bruins group of catchers will be as deep as ever and will provide the coaching staff with plenty of options. Denove, a redshirt junior who batted .291 with eight home runs in 2004, will return for his third season as the Bruins' catcher but will be backed by a solid core of utility players, including freshman Parker Hanks, senior Matt Sharp, junior Aaron Markel and redshirt freshman Sam Ray.
"Catching is another one of our stronger positions on the field," Savage said. "Assistant Coach Matt Jones has done an incredible job of incorporating his ideas and philosophies on catching with our guys. Denove is our team leader and he handles the pitching staff very well."
Hanks, De La Salle High School's 2004 Athlete of the Year, comes to UCLA with plenty of power and the chance to do more than just catch. According to Savage, he, along with Sharp and Ray, may be called upon to fill other spots on the field.
Sharp, one of only four seniors on the squad, may also see time at first base, according to Savage.
"Matt Sharp is a very versatile guy," Savage said. "He's a left-handed hitting catcher with power. He could also potentially be a designated hitter option or a first base possibility, as well as a backup catcher."
Because of the depth behind the plate and the versatility it provides in the rest of the field, Savage feels he has several key ingredients for success.
"What allows teams to win - and win big - is pitching and defense," he said. "And we're pretty solid."