After reaching the College World Series in 1997, the Bruins hoped to get back to Omaha. This was going to be a difficult chore because of key losses from the 1997 squad. There was enough hitting returning, but after losing starting pitchers Jim Parque, Tom Jacquez and Peter Zamora and closer Jake Meyer, who accounted for 379 innings combined in 1997, there were major question marks surrounding the pitching staff.
Pitching coach Tim Leary was expecting 1997 freshmen phenom Rob Henkel to anchor the staff, but he went down with an elbow injury. This meant freshmen would have to be relied on heavily. Young college pitchers rarely have instant success as it takes time to mature and adjust to the college game. Couple this with the fact that the two finalists in the College World Series (USC and Arizona State) and the No. 1 ranked team in the country for most of the season (Stanford) were all in UCLA's league, and it is easy to see why UCLA finished in fifth place in league play with an 11-19 record. With its top pitchers needed to take on its tough league foes, UCLA struggled in nonconference games and finished with a 24-33 record overall.
Freshmen pitchers ended up pitching 328.2 innings (66.3% of the team's total innings) and underclassmen pitched 424.2 innings (85.7% of the team's total innings). In a three-game series against Arizona (April 9-11), not one pitcher who made an appearance for UCLA had any collegiate experience prior to the season. In a three-game series against Arizona State (March 6-8), the first non-freshman pitcher appeared with one out in the ninth inning in the third game of the series.
Freshmen Ryan Carter, Chad Cislak and Paul Diaz were UCLA's main starters. All showed tremendous potential but were hurt by inexperience. UCLA finished the season with a league-worst 8.19 ERA.
Freshman Bobby Roe did an outstanding job as the team's closer, saving seven games to set the school's freshman record. Roe won four and saved four of UCLA's league games.
UCLA's hitting did not disappoint. The Bruins averaged 7.92 runs per game and reached double-digits in runs 18 times and double-digits in hits 35 times. Junior Eric Valent had a record-setting year, blasting 30 home runs to give him 69 for his career, a new Pac-10 record. He was named as the Pac-10 Player of the Year.
No one will forget the play of senior Eric Byrnes who became UCLA's all-time career hits leader.
Freshmen Garrett Atkins and Chase Utley made a name for themselves.
Atkins proved to be the best freshman hitter in school history. He set a school-record with a 33-game hitting streak and a school freshman record by batting .383. Utley set a school freshman record with 15 home runs.
Five freshmen batted .300 or better, giving Bruin fans lots to be excited about in the future. True freshmen hitters accounted for 206 hits, including 35 home runs.
Junior Jason Green emerged as one of the top catchers in the nation and batted .333 overall and .400 in league play, striking out just 6.5% of the time.
UCLA remained in contention for a postseason spot until it lost three games to Stanford and one to California on a road trip at the end of March. . UCLA challenged the top-ranked Cardinal. Paul Diaz, who had no collegiate experience prior to 1998, made his first collegiate start and kept UCLA in game one of the series, but the Bruins lost to Stanford and National Player of the Year Jeff Austin, 4-1. After getting pounded, 15-3, in game two of the series, UCLA took a 6-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning in game three only to see the Cardinal score four runs and win the game 7-6. After losing to California the following day, 11-4, the Bruins fell to 5-13 in league play.
The Bruins staged some miraculous comebacks during the year, overcoming a nine-run deficit @Georgia Tech on February 7 and an 10-run deficit to California on April 4.
On April 28, UCLA stunned College World Series participant Long Beach State in Long Beach, winning 4-2 in 10 innings on senior Cassidy Olson's dramatic two-run home run in the top of the 10th inning. Cislak allowed no hits and just one walk in five shutout innings of relief after Diaz allowed just two runs in five innings. That was one of the most memorable nights of the season for UCLA. It was also the night that Atkins' hitting streak came to an end.
The Big Stick Award (Best hitter on the team): Eric Valent
Best Pitcher Award: Bobby Roe
On Base Award: Nick Theodorou
Leadoff Award (Player who reached base safely most when leading off an inning): Jason Green
Most Inspirational Player Award: Eric Byrnes
Comeback Player of the Year Award: Cassidy Olson
Blue Ball Award (Best defensive player on the team): Eric Valent
Captains Award: Eric Byrnes and Eric Valent
First Year: Chad Cislak
Second Year: Tony Righetti
Third Year: Dan Keller
Fourth Year: Brett Nista
Fifth Year: Cassidy Olson
Nine Bruins Finish Careers
Eric Byrnes: This Portola Valley native established himself as one of the top all-around players in Pac-10 history. He collected 326 hits in his career, 58 more than any other player in school history . He also set the school career record in runs scored (235) doubles (75) and games played (242). He tied the Pac-10 career doubles record. Byrnes earned All-Pac-10 first-team honors twice and was a 1995 first-team Freshman All-American. He never missed a game in his career due to injury or illness and started all 124 of the team's games in right field over the final two years of his career. Byrnes was a fourth round draft choice of the Houston Astros in 1997 but elected to come back to school and was subsequently drafted by the Oakland Athletics in the eighth round. The .331 career hitter will always be remembered for his intense style of play.
Casey Cloud: This Santa Barbara native started 49 games behind the plate, including seven of UCLA's eight postseason games, in 1997. He was 4-5 in the championship game of the Midwest Regional against Oklahoma State in 1997. He helped lead UCLA to a three-game sweep over Arizona that season by batting .455. On April 5, 1998, he sparked the largest come-from-behind victory in school history (11 runs) with doubles in the eighth and ninth inning. Cloud possessed tremendous knowledge of the game of baseball which helped him to call great games behind the plate.
Matt Klein: This Solvang native provided the team with solid pitching for three years after transferring from UC Santa Barbara. He appeared in 48 games with the Bruins, being used in every role imaginable. On April 7, 1996, he was named as the Pac-10 Pitcher of the Week after saving two games against California, retiring all eight batters he faced. He was one of two pitchers who appeared in both of UCLA's College World Series games in 1997. He compiled an 8-3 record over his collegiate career. Klein signed with the Oakland Athletics as a free agent.
Brett Nista: This Laguna Hills Native provided the Bruins with great versatility for four years. He started at first base, second base, shortstop, third base and left field over his career. He collected 161 hits over his career and blasted 16 home runs, including a career-high eight in 1998. He played a key role down the stretch in 1997, batting .370 (30-81) over his last 23 games and came through in the clutch with a huge double against Tennessee on May 24 at the NCAA Midwest Regional which enabled UCLA to win the game. He will always be remembered for his play on May 20, 1995 when he set a Six-Pac record with nine RBI against UNLV.
Cassidy Olson: This Orinda native excelled both on and off the field. He had a career-year in 1998 when he batted .304 with 10 home runs as the team's everyday first baseman. In 1997, he helped UCLA get off to a great start by batting .379 over his first seven starts. He graduated with a degree in Communication Studies and earned All-Pac-10 Academic honors three years in a row. Olson signed with the Reno Chukars, an independent team.
John Phillips: This Fresno native will be remembered for his courage, desire and mental toughness. A lingering high school elbow injury prevented him from becoming a superstar. On March 1, 1995, he pitched the best game in UCLA baseball history, a one-hit shutout, allowing just an infield single and no walks. After undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery in 1996, he returned to the mound 10 months later. After an enduring rehabilitation process, he became the team's No. 1 starter only to reinjure his elbow. After injuring his elbow on March 13, 1998 @Arizona, he went back out to the mound for one last inning and retired the side in order, striking out the last batter he would ever face.
Tony Righetti: This San Jose native transferred to UCLA before the 1997 season from De Anza CC. He led the staff in ERA in both 1997 and 1998, tallying a 2.72 career ERA. He started the championship game of the 1997 Midwest Regional which UCLA went on to win 22-2. On April 13, 1998, he pitched the second one-hitter in school history, shutting out Hawai'i Hilo. In the game, he allowed a leadoff hit and no walks, striking out 11.
Nick Theodorou: This Rialto native always found a way to get on base. He set UCLA's career on base record with a .475 mark. He finished his career with a .339 batting average and 128 walks. He always came through in the clutch and set a school record by batting .473 with runners in scoring position in 1997. He will always be remembered for his incredible play at the NCAA Midwest Regional, where he collected 16 hits and earned All-Tournament honors. He added four more hits in UCLA's two games at the College World Series, giving him 20 postseason hits, a new UCLA single-season record. He later received the William G. Chirgots Collegiate Athletic Award, given to the top Greek collegiate athlete in the United States and Canada. Theodorou was drafted in the 27th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Eric Valent: This Anaheim native established himself as one of the top power hitters in the history of college baseball. He set the Pac-10 career home run record by belting 69. He hit 30 home runs in 1998, becoming the third player in Pac-10 history to accomplish the feat. He hit 27 home runs in 1997, the most by a sophomore in school history. Six of those home runs came at the NCAA Midwest Regional. Valent was named as the MVP of that regional. In 1998, he was selected as the Pac-10 Player of the Year and as a first-team All-American. In addition to setting the Pac-10 home run record, he set the school's RBI record, by recording 219 in his career, one shy of tying the Pac-10 record. Valent was drafted in the supplemental first round by the Philadelphia Phillies.