Feb. 14, 2008
After enjoying another successful season in 2007, highlighted by UCLA's first NCAA Super Regional appearance since 2000, the Bruins return a loaded, experienced corps of position players and a young, talented pitching rotation in 2008.
Anchored by juniors Ryan Babineau, Brandon Crawford, Jermaine Curtis, Cody Decker and Tim Murphy - five key veterans from head coach John Savage's first recruiting class at UCLA (ranked No. 5 by Baseball America) - the Bruins have their sights set on taking another step forward. As freshmen, that group made an immediate impact on the baseball program as UCLA finished its 2006 season with 33-25 record and a trip to the Malibu Regional.
Last season, Savage's second recruiting class (ranked No. 13 by Baseball America) added depth to a rising program, as UCLA posted a 33-28 record and concluded its season in the Super Regionals at Cal State Fullerton. Key contributions from Gavin Brooks, Alden Carrithers, Garett Claypool and Justin Uribe in their first season aided the Bruins' ascent to a top-25 finish.
In 2008, the Bruins have welcomed a group of 12 newcomers (ranked No. 7 by Baseball America) to help UCLA advance to the College World Series for the first time since 1997. In all, UCLA returns 22 letterwinners. A veteran group of infielders, strong outfield depth, a two-year starting catcher and a talented pitching staff should establish UCLA as one of the nation's most competitive teams.
"We're very excited that we have this nucleus of players that began at UCLA in 2006," Savage said. "They are an experienced group of position players that we feel is prepared to make this season a special one."
Letterwinners Returning/Lost: 9/4
Starters Returning/Lost: 2/1
The Bruins' 2007 starting rotation was a work in progress that began to thrive midway through the spring, as UCLA entered Pac-10 play. Tyson Brummett shined as the staff ace in his senior season, and Brooks emerged as a consistent arm in each of the team's series finales. However, the development and determination of Murphy helped cement the pitching staff and guide the Bruins toward their playoff run.
Left-handers Brooks and Murphy return in 2008 after having established themselves under the brightest lights in 2007. In each of their first seasons as collegiate pitchers, the former Rancho Buena Vista High School standouts improved as the year continued. Brooks, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, ended his freshman campaign having hurled three consecutive complete games - one against national champion Oregon State, one against Illinois-Chicago in the Long Beach Regional and another in a 2-1 loss to Cal State Fullerton in the Super Regionals.
"Last season, we put Gavin into that Sunday role from day one and he never missed a beat - he never missed a start," said Savage, who serves as the team's pitching coach. "He evolved into one of the toughest pitchers in the country. Down the stretch in his final four starts, I don't think there was any better freshman in the country."
A coveted two-way player at Rancho Buena Vista, Murphy emerged as a solid left-handed pitcher as a sophomore in 2007. Having exclusively played the outfield in 2006, Murphy cemented his place in the starting rotation in UCLA's conference-opening series at Stanford, where he registered seven strikeouts and allowed just four hits in 5.2 scoreless innings to pick up the victory.
Down the road, the hard-throwing left-hander recorded crucial Pac-10 wins against Washington, Arizona and California. At the Long Beach Regional, Murphy registered a save in the series-opener versus Pepperdine, before hurling a complete-game victory in the Regional Final against Long Beach State.
"Tim had as much of an impact on our season turn-around as anybody did," Savage said. "He's the biggest competitor on our team. He really established himself last spring as a reliable Pac-10 starter and became a guy we could really count on."
Murphy's performance in 2007 proved essential to the Bruins, particularly after UCLA's starting rotation took a hit before the season began. Slated to be the team's No. 2 starter as a freshman, Charles Brewer missed the season's first three months with illness and injury before joining the bullpen in early May. After a successful summer pitching for the Cape Cod League's Chatham A's, Brewer returns to Westwood this spring, healthy and eager to contribute.
"When Charles is healthy, he's a very talented right-handed pitcher," Savage said. "He has terrific command of his fastball and can pitch very well to both sides of the plate. He's your prototypical college right-hander. We expect him to be healthy and to be out there competing from day one. That will really offset our two left-handers in Tim Murphy and Gavin Brooks."
Among the Bruins' most encouraging performances in 2007 came from right-hander Garett Claypool, who logged 53.1 innings in 24 appearances, including seven mid-week starts. Claypool moved into the closer role late in the season and finished his freshman campaign with four saves and a 3.54 ERA while limiting opponents to a .230 average.
Juniors Jason Novak and Brendan Lafferty, two of the team's most veteran arms, will add depth to UCLA's bullpen. Novak, who leads all Bruins with 47 pitching appearances in two seasons, registered a 4.83 ERA in 41.0 innings as a sophomore in 2007. The Agoura High School (Agoura, Calif.) product features one of the best sliders among all Pac-10 pitchers and showcases a fastball in the low 90s.
Lafferty made a team-high 25 appearances, including two starts, and surrendered just eight walks in 28.1 innings in 2007. The 6-foot-4 left-hander from Riverside, Calif., redshirted in 2006 after making 15 appearances as a freshman in 2006. Lafferty may see action as both a starter and a reliever this season. Other starting pitching candidates include sophomore Matt Drummond, who made two starts in 2007, and freshmen Dan Klein and Rob Rasmussen.
"In each of our first two weeks, we will play five games," Savage said. "We have a lot of options, where some of those guys may pitch in the starting rotation or filter into the bullpen. We're still young on the mound, but we're very talented."
Letterwinners Returning/Lost: 2/1
Starters Returning/Lost: 1/0
No catcher in the Pac-10 Conference has played in as many games or caught as many innings as Babineau, a freshman All-America selection by Baseball America in 2006 and an All-Pac-10 honorable mention in 2007. In 117 games over the past two seasons (115 starts), Babineau has committed just two errors behind the plate while totaling a .266 batting average with 11 home runs, 62 RBI and 58 runs.
Having served as the Bruins' primary catcher since he stepped on campus in the fall of 2005, Babineau has fortified his status as a team captain in 2008.
"Ryan has been the heart and soul of our program since day one," Savage said. "He's a very good receiver with a major-league arm, and he has been our quarterback behind the plate. He handled a very good staff in 2006, and he carried that over to last season, when he really helped elevate Tyson's game."
Babineau's work behind the plate helped the development of young pitchers Brooks and Murphy in 2007, and Savage knows that UCLA's freshmen pitchers will have the same luxury in 2008. Offensively, Babineau became a spark at the bottom of the Bruins' batting lineup last spring. The former standout athlete at Etiwanda High School (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.) earned All-NCAA Regional Team accolades after hitting 5-for-8 with two RBI and four sacrifice bunts in three regional games at Long Beach State.
"Ryan knows me very well, and we've worked hard together in terms of scouting reports and getting to know our pitchers," Savage said. "He just has a great feel for each of our pitchers. That's what makes him a special player as well as a special person."
Senior Brent Dean returns in 2008 after having played in six games last spring (two starts). Dean posted a .250 average in limited action after transferring to UCLA from L.A. Harbor Junior College. The Bruins welcome junior Gino Aielli and freshman Chris Giovinazzo behind the plate in 2008. Aielli spent the last two years playing for Saddleback Junior College (Mission Viejo, Calif.), and Giovinazzo arrives in Westwood from Laguna Hills High School (Laguna Hills, Calif.).
Letterwinners Returning/Lost: 6/3
Starters Returning/Lost: 4/0
On a team full of experienced position players, the 2008 edition of UCLA's infield may be the ballclub's most veteran unit. Anchored on the left side of the infield by Curtis at third base and led up the middle by Crawford at shortstop and second baseman Alden Carrithers, Bruin fans will be treated to more than just a handful of "web gems" throughout the season. Decker and sophomore Casey Haerther will carry the bulk of responsibility at first base, as sophomore Justin Uribe may see time at the corner infield.
In 2007, Curtis proved to be the spark that the Bruins so vitally needed. UCLA opened its season with an 8-14 mark and stood at 10-14 before Curtis returned to the lineup (ineligibility) for the Pac-10 season opener at Stanford. Not only did UCLA sweep the Cardinal on the road for the first time since 1991, but the Bruins rolled to their best conference start (at 8-1) since 1924.
"We were in a funk for the first 22 games, and the day he stepped on the field for the series opener at Stanford, our whole mindset changed," Savage said. "From the way we pitched to the way we played defense to the way we battled at the plate, you name it - I've never seen one player make that much of a difference."
After leading all regulars with a .336 average as a freshman in 2006, Curtis picked up where he left off in 2007. The Fontana, Calif., resident posted a .329 average, totaling four home runs, 33 RBI, 31 runs and a .412 on-base percentage in 37 games. Curtis earned All-NCAA Regional Team honors at the Long Beach Regional, finishing the three-game series hitting .500 (7-for-14) with three RBI, one double and a key home run in the regional final.
"He's a guy that brings tremendous energy to the field, in the weight room, when we're conditioning, to practice, and certainly to the game," Savage said. "He is the same all the time. And that's what makes him a throwback player, in terms of having so much passion for the game of baseball. He creates an unbelievably positive, fun atmosphere."
And the atmosphere at Jackie Robinson Stadium should be just as positive in 2008 with the return of Crawford, who was named the team's most valuable player in 2006 and 2007. A five-tool player who prides his defensive game, Crawford registered a .335 average with seven home runs, 55 RBI and 50 runs in 2007.
"He loves to play defense, and that's always a nice characteristic to have out of a young player," Savage said. "He's always taken huge pride in his ability to go get ground balls and to throw people out. He is an athletic guy who has unbelievable range and a major-league arm. A left-handed threat at the plate, he has put up good numbers for us. As our MVP the past two seasons, he's a very talented player who has really grown from this experience."
Carrithers sparked the Bruins at the top of the lineup throughout the 2007 season, leading UCLA in multiple offensive categories - batting average (.352), runs scored (53), walks (32) and hit-by-pitch (tied, 11). Hitting in either the leadoff or second slots in the batting lineup, Carrithers proved himself as a key contributor at UCLA after having spent his first two seasons playing for UC Santa Barbara.
"Alden has a great knack of the strike zone, of taking walks - he's tough to strike out." Savage said. "When he uses the whole field, he is as good a hitter as there is in the Pac-10. He's a very offensive player and has been a hit machine since he stepped in to Division I baseball. Defensively, Alden worked very hard in the fall and has really improved that part of his game. You are going to see a much better defensive player this spring."
With the departure of Tim Stewart (graduation), Decker and Haerther will compete for playing time at first base. Both players split time in 2007 between first base and designated hitter, as Decker saw action at first base in 26 contests. The former standout at Santa Monica High School (Santa Monica, Calif.) led the Bruins with 14 home runs and 57 RBI one year ago. Likewise, the slugger posted team-highs of 10 home runs and 36 RBI in Pac-10 play.
"Cody has that rare combination of a guy who can hit for power and a high average," Savage said. "He's a good all-around hitter and a tough out. Whenever you see a guy hit 14 home runs and knock in just under 60 RBI with that high of an average, you've got to love a guy like that. He can hit the three-run homer, and he'll have the tough at-bat. He has really turned himself into a complete hitter."
Haerther saw action in 37 games last spring (29 starts), making the bulk of his appearances as the Bruins' designated hitter. A product of Chaminade High School (West Hills, Calif.), Haerther posted a .263 average with one home run, 15 RBI and 12 runs. Savage and the Bruins look forward to Haerther's progress in 2008 and hope that his sophomore season mirrors that of Decker's in 2007.
"Casey is one of those sophomores who has a great future," Savage said. "We know he can hit, but he had a pretty typical freshman season where he struggled at times. But he can come out this spring and be the offensive threat that Cody [Decker] has become, because he certainly has that type of ability."
Letterwinners Returning/Lost: 8/1
Starters Returning/Lost: 2/1
UCLA possesses tremendous depth and talent in the outfield, as several Bruins look to pick up where they left off in 2007. The outfield unit lost Will Penniall (graduation), but returns four players who saw ample playing time in 2007 - seniors Brady Dolan and Mickey Weisser and sophomores Gabe Cohen and Justin Uribe. UCLA also welcomes back sophomore Blair Dunlap, who hit .300 as a freshman in 2006 before missing the 2007 campaign with a shoulder injury (medical redshirt).
Cohen had a sensational freshman year and looks to increase his production in 2008. UCLA's right fielder, Cohen played in 56 games (51 starts, all in right field) and posted a .345 batting average, the second-highest mark on the team. Prior to earning Pac-10 Co-Newcomer of the Year honors, he belted 10 home runs and totaled 36 RBI, the highest totals by a UCLA freshman since Wes Whisler accomplished the feat in 2002. A good defensive outfielder with a strong arm, the Bruins are excited about Cohen's potential this spring.
"We feel really good about our outfield, starting with Gabe Cohen in right," Savage said. "He's your prototypical Pac-10 right fielder. He has tremendous power and he's another guy who can hit for a high average. Gabe has improved his defense, and he's got a good arm."
Uribe played all three outfield positions as a freshman and appeared in three games as a relief pitcher - primarily, he manned the real estate in center field (35 starts, 21 in center field). The former Foothill High School standout (Santa Ana, Calif.) blossomed toward the end of the 2007 season, earning All-NCAA Regional Team honors after hitting .545 (6-for-11) in three Long Beach Regional games. In all five postseason contests, Uribe logged a team-high .526 average (10-for-19). This season, Savage expects to see Uribe contributing in the outfield, at first base and on the mound.
"Justin played unbelievable center field for us down the stretch," Savage said. "He's got a great feel for how the game should be played. Last season, he surprised not only the Pac-10, but all of college baseball with how well he played as a freshman. He's a fun player to coach, because he is a gamer. He can play a lot of different positions, and he's always going to do what it takes for the team to win."
Dolan hit .280 in 39 games (21 starts), collecting one home run, 16 runs and seven RBI. A fifth-year senior who transferred to UCLA prior to the 2006 season, Dolan made 17 starts in center field and four in left field. Weisser, who competed for Sierra Junior College in 2005 (with Dolan) and 2006, posted a .253 average and .417 on-base percentage, drawing 18 walks and nine hit-by-pitches. Both senior outfielders pride themselves on playing with a tough, scrappy and selfless attitude.
"Brady has gotten bigger and stronger, and we really look for him to be in the lineup a lot," Savage said. "He had a tremendous fall, and we're excited to see him play this spring. Mickey is a guy who has a tremendous feel for the strike zone. He's a tough out and gets on base often. Being a senior, he's been through it before, and we look for him to certainly be a contributor in our outfield."
Savage and the Bruins have eagerly anticipated the return of Dunlap, a speedy center fielder who earned All-NCAA Regional Tournament honors at the Malibu Regional in 2006. Dunlap played in just six games in 2007 before earning a medical redshirt due to a nagging right shoulder injury. A product of Santa Margarita High School (Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.), Dunlap hit .300 in 35 games his freshman season.
"In center field, we feel strong about Blair's recovery," Savage said. "He had a tremendous fall, and he's another very offensive player who can track down the ball well in center. He profiles to be a legitimate Pac-10 center fielder in 2008."
UCLA welcomes freshman Brett Krill, a 2007 AFLAC All-American, to the outfield this season. Krill, a standout ballplayer at Aliso Niguel High School (Aliso Viejo, Calif.), should also compete for playing time. Aside from pitching in the rotation, the left-handed Murphy will continue to see time at the plate and in the outfield.
"Brett has as much power as anybody on the team," Savage said. "He was selected by the Atlanta Braves in the draft and he's going to have a tremendous future here at UCLA. Murphy, also, will still be used as a position player. We think his future is on the mound, but he certainly can benefit us in the outfield as well."
The Bruins faced the second-most challenging schedule in the nation last season and played the toughest slate of games in 2006, as rated by Boyd's World. And 2008 should be no different. Playing non-conference weekend series' against Oklahoma, Long Beach State, UC Riverside, Cal Poly and St. Mary's, the Bruins will be battle-tested at the start of Pac-10 play.
UCLA's midweek schedule does not lighten up, as the Bruins will play three games against Cal State Fullerton and two games each versus UC Irvine, Pepperdine and San Diego State. Other non-conference matchups include Tuesday night contests against San Diego, UC Santa Barbara and UNLV. In the second weekend of the season, the Bruins will compete in the inaugural Urban Invitational against Bethune-Cookman, Southern and USC.
"Our schedule is a lot more West Coast this year, but we are going to be challenged as much as ever, in terms of the quality of our opponents," Savage said. "Being in the Pac-10 Conference and being in Los Angeles, you've got great non-league opponents within a 50-mile radius. It's standard living in southern California. We have the benefit of playing an outstanding midweek schedule in addition to a strong weekend schedule."
And throw in 24 Pac-10 games, and UCLA's schedule will again rank among the most challenging in the nation. The Bruins open Pac-10 play at Arizona (March 28-30), playing a Wildcat squad ranked No. 1 in Collegiate Baseball's preseason top-40 poll. The Bruins host USC (April 4-6) in the annual Lexus Gauntlet Challenge and welcome Stanford to town two weeks later (April 18-20). UCLA returns to Washington the following weekend (April 25-27) and will host Arizona State, a College World Series participant one year ago (May 2-4).
The Bruins' Pac-10 slate continues at two-time defending national champion Oregon State (May 9-11), before the final home series of the spring, versus Washington State (May 16-18). UCLA closes its 56-game regular season at California (May 23-25).
"We have a very challenging schedule both in conference and out of the conference," Savage said. "We don't want to get ahead of ourselves with the rankings and so forth. We really want to get into the process of having fun with this - of challenging ourselves, of being competitive, and of looking at the present instead of looking into the future. We're looking forward to opening against Oklahoma, and after that the games start coming quickly."