Baseball Ready for 1998 Season

Dec. 23, 1997

LOS ANGELES -- Over the past 78 seasons, the UCLA baseball program has enjoyed great success and has become one of the most renowned collegiate programs in the nation. The Bruins have been in the NCAA playoffs seven of the last 12 years, and 10 players from those teams have made it to the major leagues. In 1997, UCLA advanced to the College World Series after winning the Midwest Regional in Stillwater, OK. This year, the Bruins hope to win it all, and they certainly have the talent to accomplish this goal. In addition, several players from this ballclub have a great chance of making it to the major leagues.

Head coach Gary Adams is looking forward to his 24th season at the helm of the UCLA baseball program. "We have a good mix of experienced talent and young talent," said Adams.

UCLA was hit hard by the draft, losing four All-Americans: Troy Glaus (34 home runs), Jon Heinrichs (28 home runs), Peter Zamora (16 home runs) and Jim Parque (13-2). But the coaching staff assembled an incredible recruiting class, ranked No. 1 in the nation by Collegiate Baseball. Sixteen freshmen have joined the team, and 10 of them were drafted in 1997. In addition, senior right fielder Eric Byrnes, a two-time All-Pac-10 selection, decided to return to school, turning down a contract offer from the Houston Astros who drafted him in the fourth round. Byrnes (17 home runs, 20 stolen bases) joins several other key players from the 1997 World Series team, including junior center fielder Eric Valent (27 home runs), senior second baseman Nick Theodorou (.365) and sophomore lefthander Rob Henkel (49 strikeouts in 41.2 innings).

Pitching: There are many quality arms on this year's pitching staff. In fact, eight members of the staff have been drafted in the past. Last season, the three weekend starters - Parque, Peter Zamora and Tom Jacquez - were relied on heavily. In fact, they pitched in a combined total of 349 innings out of a possible 595.2 (59%). Relievers Jake Meyer and Henkel were called on to finish the games the starters could not. This season, the innings will be spread out more. "We're going to rely more on depth this season. We have a number of pitchers who performed well in the fall, and we are looking for them to be the nucleus of the staff at the beginning of the season. I'm very excited about our overall quality of pitching," said pitching coach Tim Leary.

It will be tough to offset the losses of Parque, Jacquez and Zamora, who were a combined 29-8 last season, but Leary has several pitchers to choose from to fill the vacated holes in the starting rotation.

Henkel, who had an outstanding freshman campaign as a late-inning reliever, is expected to become one of the team's top starting pitchers and could also see time as the closer. Opponents batted just .228 against him last season. In league play, he struck out 23 batters and walked just four in 16 innings and opponents batted just .177 against him.

Senior righthander John Phillips, one of the strongest professional prospects on the team, has recovered from "Tommy John" surgery on his elbow and lit up the radar gun in the fall. The former 10th round draft choice of the Oakland A's (1993) who pitched a one-hitter (no walks) in 1995 against the University of San Diego, is expected to be one of the anchors of the staff.

Joining Henkel and Phillips in the starting rotation to begin the season will be freshman righthander Chad Cislak, a first-team High School All-American in 1997 at Sabino HS in Tucson, Arizona.

Several other pitchers have a chance to start. Junior righthander Dan Keller should be an integral member of the staff. He will be used in a variety of roles this season. After starring for the Orleans Cardinals in the Cape Cod League this summer, he had an excellent fall, aided by a new curveball.

Sophomore lefthander Al Thielemann and freshman lefthander Ryan Carter, a 14th round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Pirates, could also end up as starters by the end of the season. Thielemann had a strong fall. Carter showed tremendous potential and is working on becoming more consistent.

Sophomore righthander Ryan Reightley had an outstanding fall. He has a good assortment of pitches and could start.

Senior righthanders Matt Klein and Tony Righetti are two experienced college pitchers who will help the team. Klein came on strong at the end of last season and was the only pitcher who appeared in both of UCLA's games at the College World Series. Righetti started the championship game of the Midwest Regional and led the staff in ERA (2.63).

Freshman lefthander Bobby Roe out of Plano, Texas, had a solid fall and will be used in different roles this season. He has excellent control.

Sophomore righthander Gabe Crecion started six games last season for UCLA. He did not pitch in fall ball because he was a tight end on the football team, but he could play a big role on the team this season.

Those not starting will became members of the bullpen. Last season, Jake Meyer was the team's closer and saved eight games but he signed professionally after being drafted in the seventh round. A bullpen by committee will likely be used with no set closer. The top man out of the bullpen is expected to be freshman righthander Jon Brandt out of Palo Alto. The 50th round draft choice of the Seattle Mariners had an extremely impressive fall.

Freshman righthander Tyler Dersom, freshman lefthander Charles Merricks, freshman righthander Paul Diaz and sophomore lefthander Derek Fowler will also be members of the bullpen. Dersom is a sidearm pitcher who could close in the future. Merricks had a strong fall and will be used as a short reliever. Diaz was a pleasant surprise in fall. Fowler continues to improve and could be a starter in the future.

Offense: "Our offense will be different from last year. We do not have as much power but we are well-balanced. We will rely on execution this year, bunting for hits and putting on the hit-and-run more than last year. We have a good mixture of veterans and young, talented players," said hitting coach Vince Beringhele.

Power: Despite losing players that accounted for 81 home runs last season, Valent and Byrnes return. In 1997 they accounted for 44 home runs. Valent blasted 27, the most by a sophomore in school history. He needs 24 home runs this season to become the Pac-10's all-time leading home run hitter. Several freshmen have the potential to become home run hitters at UCLA, including outfielder Bill Scott (Granada Hills, CA), catcher Forrest Johnson (Fontana, CA), catcher Adam Berry (Richardson, TX), outfielder Nick Lyon (Monroe, WA), outfielder Matt Pearl (Bakersfield, CA), shortstop Chase Utley (Long Beach, CA) and infielder Garrett Atkins (Irvine, CA).

Speed: Byrnes has the potential to lead the nation in stolen bases. Despite missing the first three weeks of summer ball, he tied for third in the Cape Cod League with 22 stolen bases. Last season, he stole 19 bases in 20 attempts for UCLA, and he will be stealing more frequently this season. Senior Brett Nista and Theodorou have good speed and will spot steal. Sophomore Ryan Roques, who was UCLA's baserunning specialist last season, will join the team in January. He has blazing speed and was a cornerback on the football team in the fall. Freshmen Cody Joyce and Freddie Mitchell, who played on the football team in the fall, also have great speed and will be key assets.

Defense: The team struggled defensively last season. Opponents scored 95 unearned runs off of 129 errors and 22 passed balls. The addition of Utley, a second round draft choice of the Los Angeles Dodgers will greatly improve the left side of the infield. With a year under his belt at second base, Theodorou should emerge as one of the top defensive second baseman in the country.

Adams has been stressing the need to be play good, fundamental baseball. "I want this team to play solid, good fundamental baseball. I feel good about the offense and pitching, but I want the team to play smart baseball on a routine basis," said Adams.

The tradition of reaching postseason play and developing major league players is rich at UCLA. The 1998 squad has the potential to win the College World Series, and several players from this squad have the potential to reach the major leagues.

Pitching Staff: The leading candidates to be starters at the beginning of the season are sophomore lefthander Rob Henkel, junior righthander John Phillips and freshman righthander Chad Cislak.

Several other pitchers will compete for starting spots once practice resumes and throughout the season. Junior righthander Dan Keller will serve in a variety of roles and is a key member of the staff. Senior righthanders Matt Klein and Tony Righetti add tremendous experience to the staff and will be used as relievers. Sophomore Ryan Reightley had a great fall and could start.

Several pitchers could be used as closers depending on the situation, but freshman righthander Jon Brandt will be counted on in the late innings. Another freshman who is expected to make an impact is lefthander Bobby Roe, who pitched well in the fall. He will be used in a variety of roles. Sophomore Al Thielemann and freshman Ryan Carter are very talented lefthanders who could force their way into the starting rotation. They will likely begin the season in the bullpen.

Freshman lefthander Charles Merricks was impressive during the fall and will be used as a short reliever. Freshman righthander Tyler Dersom, a sidearmer, could be the closer of the future. He will be used as a short reliever. Freshman righthander Paul Diaz showed improvement during the fall and will be used as a reliever. Sophomore lefthander Derek Fowler has the potential to be a future starter, but for now he will be used to get lefthanded batters out.

Catcher: "There is a real battle being waged with four players having a chance of starting," said head coach Gary Adams. Those four players are senior Casey Cloud, junior Jason Green, freshman Forrest Johnson and freshman Adam Berry. Cloud and Green are the leading candidates. Cloud started 49 games last season behind the plate and is a solid receiver who calls a great game, but needs to become more consistent at the plate. Green is a good all-around player who has made tremendous improvement since last season. Johnson and Berry could both be stars of the future at UCLA. They have good, raw power and are improving defensively.

First Base: Seniors Cassidy Olson and Brett Nista have been battling each other for the job. "Cass was the best hitter on our team this fall," said hitting coach Vince Beringhele. Nista did not hit in the fall due to shoulder surgery he had over the summer, but he is much stronger than last year. Nista swung the bat extremely well during the stretch run last season. Several freshmen are pushing both Olson and Nista. Garrett Atkins, a 10th round draft choice of the New York Mets out of University HS is a good hitter who had an impressive fall. Eric Reece, who redshirted last season, has made a huge improvement with the bat and is making the transition to first base. Both of the freshmen catchers - Johnson and Berry - could also see time at first base. Sophomore Billy Pieper, who will join the team in January after the football season, is another candidate at first base. He has strong potential but will be behind the other players.

Second Base: Senior Nick Theodorou will be the team's starter at second base for the second consecutive season. "Nick has played second base only one season, but I think he is ready to be one of the best second basemen in the country," said Adams. He is an exceptional hitter who batted .365 last season with 45 walks and 10 stolen bases. He helped turn 45 double plays last season.

Theodorou will be backed up by several players, including Nista, junior Jack Santora, freshman Matt Pearl, sophomore Aldo Pinto and freshman Khelyn Smith who Adams has labeled as "the second baseman of the future."

Shortstop: Freshman Chase Utley will be the team's starting shortstop. The Los Angeles Dodgers selected him in the second round of the draft, but he decided to come to school and Adams is glad he did. "He is doing everything we anticipated. He works very hard on defense," said Adams.

Utley will be backed up by Santora and Pinto.

Third Base: Santora is the leading candidate at third base, but he is being challenged by Atkins and Pinto. Santora played exceptionally well in the postseason last year. "I expect him to pick up where he left off last year," said Adams. Santora has quicker feet and more experience than the other candidates at third base, but it is still a good battle. Atkins can hit for average and power but needs to improve defensively. "I am hoping he can play third base well enough to compete in the Pac-10. If he can, our team will be better," said Adams. Pinto started 34 games last season. "He is a dependable, steady performer," said Adams.

Left Field: Several talented youngsters are competing for the starting job in left field. Freshmen Matt Pearl and Bill Scott made strong statements in the fall. They both can hit for power. Pearl was selected by Cal-Hi Sports as the small school High School Player of the Year. Scott was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 24th round. Another option in left field is sophomore Michael Hymes, who batted .320 as a true freshman last season in limited action. Hymes has excellent speed.

Center Field: Junior Eric Valent will start in center field for the third season in a row. Valent is a tremendous hitter and is gifted with a great arm. In fact, Adams said, "Eric has a major league arm," Valent will be one of the premier players in the nation this season.

Valent will be backed up by sophomore Ryan Roques and freshman Freddie Mitchell.

Right Field: Senior Eric Byrnes has returned for a fourth year in right field after turning down a contract offer from the Houston Astros who drafted him in the fourth round. "He is a leader on and off the field. He can cover a lot of ground and has a good, strong arm," said Adams.

Byrnes will be backed up by freshmen Nick Lyon and Cody Joyce.

Designated Hitter: "Whoever has the hottest bat has got the job," said Beringhele.