2013 was an outstanding year for the UCLA Baseball team. The Bruins earned their first NCAA Championship in the program’s 94-year history, setting numerous records along the way. 2014 looks to be an equally exciting year for UCLA, as the Bruins aim to continue the success they enjoyed last season.
John Savage enters his 10th year as head coach of the Bruins, leading the program to never before seen heights in his tenure as head coach. Aside from guiding the Bruins to their first championship in school history in 2013, Savage has coached the Bruins to College World Series appearances in three of the last four years, the College World Series Finals in two of the last four (2010 and 2013) and the postseason in seven of the last eight.
Last season, the Bruins went a perfect 10-0 in the postseason, posting a 4-0 record against national seeds in the tournament while eliminating two of them (No. 5 Cal State Fullerton, No. 1 North Carolina). During the Bruins’ postseason run, Savage became UCLA’s all-time leader in postseason wins, posting his 27th postseason win in UCLA’s 3-0 win over Cal State Fullerton in the NCAA Super Regionals to pass Gary Adams. At the College World Series, the Bruins’ pitching staff only allowed four runs over five CWS games. In the 67-year-history of the College World Series, only one national champion gave up fewer runs than UCLA, as California allowed three in 1957. The Bruins were also the first team in CWS history to allow one run or less in each of the five games they played.
2014 will undoubtedly provide a new challenge for the Bruins, as they are now the team on everybody’s radar. The success the program has enjoyed over the past four years has brought the team into the conversation among the nation’s elite and the 2014 squad will look to continue to build upon that foundation of success.
“This year we have a big target on our back and we’re the hunted,” Savage said. “Now that we’ve won the championship, it puts you in a different light and raises expectations. But we look forward to getting better every day and taking on the challenge of being the team that everybody is trying to beat.”
The Bruins will have to replace two of the best starting pitchers in school history in right-handers Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig, both of whom were selected in June’s MLB Draft. Vander Tuig and Plutko earned All-Pac-12 honors last season and finished their careers as the winningest pitching tandem in school history, combining for 56 wins.
Sophomore James Kaprielian is projected to take the place of Plutko on Friday nights after spending his freshman year in the bullpen. Kaprielian made 34 relief appearances last season, posting a 1.55 ERA, two saves and 53 strikeouts in 40.2 innings pitched en route to earning freshman All-America honors from Perfect Game USA and Collegiate Baseball. He was especially key during the second half of the season, logging a 1.65 ERA in 16 Pac-12 appearances before appearing in six postseason games and allowing only one run in 5.2 innings pitched. This past summer, Kaprielian pitched for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox of the prestigious Cape Cod League, striking out 28 batters in 20 innings while recording a 1.80 ERA.
“With James, everybody saw his abilities last year coming out of the bullpen and again in the Cape Cod League over the summer,” Savage said. “Now he needs to establish himself in our program as a starter and pitch to our style. He’s been a starter his whole career in high school, so starting is nothing new for him, and overall I think he’s more comfortable this year. We look for him to be leading the charge on Friday night. He’s got a power arm and power stuff and that’s what you’re looking for out of your Friday night guy.”
Junior Grant Watson is the one holdover from last year’s weekend rotation, as he served as the Bruins’ Sunday starter in 2013. This year, Watson projects to be the Saturday starter, filling the void left by Vander Tuig. Watson went 9-3 with a 3.01 ERA in 2013, striking out 55 batters and walking just 16, the sixth-fewest in the Pac-12. He pitched particularly well in the postseason, winning both of his starts while not allowing a run in 13 combined innings. In addition, Watson was named to the 2013 NCAA Los Angeles Regional All-Tournament Team.
“What can you say about Grant Watson,” said Savage. “He’s an 18-game winner, a preseason All-American and has had as good a two-year career as maybe any starter in the history of the school. He established himself on Tuesdays as a freshman and then again on Sundays as a sophomore, and even though he went almost a month and a half without a win last year, I think he learned from that. He’s an underrated athlete, a great competitor and pitched in some huge games last year. He handled San Diego and North Carolina in the Tournament and is a very reliable guy for us.”
The last weekend rotation spot is slated to go to sophomore right-hander Cody Poteet. Poteet served as UCLA’s Tuesday starter last season, going 4-4 with a 4.69 ERA in his 11 starts. He also made 18 appearances out of the bullpen for the Bruins, recording a 4-6 record with a 4.84 ERA and 56 strikeouts in total. Poteet spent the summer with the Walla Walla Sweets of the West Coast League, being selected as one of the league’s All-Stars.
“Cody got a little taste of starting last year and showed some flashes of what he could do,” Savage said. “He also had some moments this summer with Walla Walla while also being named the best prospect from that league. Cody is a lot like Kaprielian in that he needs to adapt to our style of pitching and get to that dependability mode. He needs to become a six-inning, three earned run guy and just gain that consistency. Him being a four-pitch guy allows us to have more variety on Sundays than most other teams. There aren’t a lot of teams out there that can match up with his pure stuff. But again, he has to go out and pitch and establish himself on Sundays.”
Freshmen right-handers Scott Burke and Grant Dyer are currently battling for that final starting spot on Tuesdays. Burke enjoyed an outstanding three-year varsity career at Glendora High School before being selected in the 31st round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the Houston Astros. During his senior season at Glendora, he went 7-3 as a starter with a 2.32 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 60.1 innings pitched. Dyer was a three-year varsity letterwinner at Dana Hills High School in Laguna Niguel, Calif., posting a 6-4 record as a senior in 2013. He also logged a 1.24 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 62 innings pitched.
“Both Scott and Grant had a really strong finish in the fall,” said Savage. ”Both guys are very young, but we like having young pitchers on Tuesday that we feel are going to be potential weekend guys down the road. Right now we look for both guys to compete to be the guy on Tuesdays.”
One of the strengths of this year’s team will again be the bullpen. Returning for his junior season is All-American closer David Berg, who has enjoyed one of the finest two-year careers of any reliever in NCAA history. In 101 career relief appearances, Berg has logged a 12-3 record with a 0.98 ERA and 141 strikeouts. In 2013, he became the first relief pitcher in conference history to win Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year honors and was awarded the NCBWA Stopper of the Year, given out to the nation’s top collegiate relief pitcher. Berg also set the NCAA Division I single-season record for saves last season with 24. Finally, he is UCLA’s all-time record holder for most postseason appearances (17) and saves (6), career saves (25) and has the second-lowest ERA in UCLA postseason history with a 0.98 mark.
“David Berg has probably had as good a two years as any reliever that’s ever pitched in college with the appearances, saves, ERA and everything else,” said Savage. “It’s just been an incredible two years for David and we would never be in the position we are now without him. We hope to have that sort of strength in the back of the bullpen again.”
Other guys who will be counted upon to play large roles in the bullpen are left-hander Max Schuh and right-handers Jake Ehret and Nick Kern. Schuh and Ehret saw limited action in 2013, but are expected to contribute more in 2014, while Kern will look to see his first collegiate action this season.
“Our bullpen has really been as good as our starting pitching over the last four seasons,” said Savage. “We love to establish roles in the bullpen. Right now, Schuh looks to be that seventh inning guy. He’s made great strides this fall and had a good summer in the Northwoods League. Kern probably had one of the best falls of any of our pitchers. He’s another guy who has four pitches and has really improved since the summer. Finally, Jake Ehret really has thrown as hard as anybdoy we’ve had. He’s taken some strides as well and is another guy that could fit into that setup role.”
The Bruins appear to be very deep at the catcher position coming into 2014, with junior Shane Zeile returning behind the dish after starting 57 of UCLA’s 66 games last season. Zeile handled a pitching staff that posted a 2.55 ERA and held opponents to a .222 batting average, both the second-lowest marks in the Pac-12. At the plate, he recorded nine doubles and 20 RBI while hitting at a .286 clip in Pac-12 play.
“We have tremendous depth at the catching position,” Savage said. “Shane will be back for his second year as a full-time catcher after being one of the main pieces of our team last year. He converted to catcher during this time last year after his injury in the fall of 2012 and has become a big-time player. We really feel his offense is going to improve dramatically this season. He can catch and throw, he can block, and really is one of the better prospects in the Pac-12.”
Freshman Dominic Miroglio and sophomores Darrell Miller Jr. and Justin Hazard will all compete for playing time at the catcher spot as well. Miroglio, who was a three-year varsity standout at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, Calif., was drafted in the 40th round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the Oakland A’s. Hazard and Miller Jr. each saw time behind the plate last year. Miller appeared in 10 games, making three starts at the catcher position, while Hazard made six starts behind the plate while hitting .333.
“Right now Justin will be our backup catcher,” Savage said. “He’s a talented guy with a good arm who can also hit well at the plate. With Miroglio and Miller as well, we have four guys who are holding that position down very well right now, so we feel really good about our catching.”
UCLA will have plenty of experience returning in the infield in 2014.
Senior Pat Gallagher returns to man first base after enjoying a great second half of last season. Gallagher hit .274 with 20 runs, seven doubles, one home run and 20 RBI in 2013 while slugging .331. In the postseason, he proved to be one of the Bruins’ best hitters, starting all 10 games and batting .351 with a .405 slugging percentage. Additionally, Gallagher earned Most Outstanding Player honors at the NCAA Los Angeles Regional after going 5-for-9 with four RBI.
“Pat had a really strong second half of last season,” said Savage. “He was the Regional MVP and was really reliable at first. Defensively, I thought he improved tremendously and is really another guy who will improve offensively this year. Overall, I think Shane and Pat had two of the best falls with the bat.”
Also looking to earn time at first base will be freshman Luke Persico, who was selected by the Colorado Rockies in the 37th round of last June’s draft out of Great Oak High School in Temecula, Calif.
“Pat will be our everyday first baseman along with Luke Persico,” said Savage. “Luke is a right-handed guy who was really brought in to play the outfield, but we’re converting him to an infielder. He’s another guy who has tremendous power and is probably the best, young right-handed hitter in our program.”
Senior Kevin Williams returns at second base this season after spending the majority of last season as the Bruins’ designated hitter. After a shoulder injury kept him out for the first half of last season, Williams returned to hit .227 with one home run and 12 RBI. He again is projected to miss the start of the season as he recovers from another shoulder injury.
“We’re looking for Kevin to get back healthy again after he had another setback with an injury,” said Savage, “hopefully by March 1. Kevin’s a very talented defender whose offense we expect to improve as well.”
In place of Williams, UCLA will turn to sophomores Brett Urabe and Trent Chatterton to fill the void at second base. Chatterton played in 41 games in 2013, posting an on-base percentage of .358 while hitting .257 with 18 runs, four doubles and 10 RBI. Urabe appeared in 25 games last season, mostly off the bench, adding to the Bruins’ depth and providing a nice spark on the basepaths.
“In addition to Williams, we also have Brett, who is a utility guy who can play all three positions and can really run, and Trent, who is another utility guy who can play all three positions,” Savage said. “While Kevin will be the face of that position, Brett and Trent are both utility type guys who can fill in for him and play second base.”
After spending the past two seasons as UCLA’s everyday third baseman, junior Kevin Kramer will look to move over to shortstop in 2014. A 2013 honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection, Kramer tied for the team lead in hits last season with 68 while batting .278. Kramer also led the team with 11 multi-RBI games and finished second on the squad with 42 RBI.
“Kramer was a shortstop and a quarterback in high school and was really drafted as a shortstop out of high school,” Savage said. “He played third base very well last season and had a tremendous fall. He has really gotten stronger. Kramer’s yet another guy that I think will be better offensively. He’s one of the best prospects on our team and I think he’s going to feel pretty comfortable playing short.”
Taking Kramer’s spot at third will be junior Chris Keck, who is projected to step into a full-time role this season after spending his first two seasons in Westwood as a part-time player. Keck played in 31 games last year, making 22 starts and recording 10 RBI.
“Chris Keck is a guy that we are really depending on at third base,” Savage said. “He’s a good prospect with a lot of power offensively and a big arm in the field. Chris has not been an everyday player in his first two years in the program and kind of falls into the similar role that guys like Brian Carroll and Pat Gallagher played last year. Nevertheless, he needs to step up in his junior year and we think he is more than capable of doing so.”
There looks to be a lot of competition for playing time in the outfield with four guys competing for three spots.
With last year’s starting right-fielder Eric Filia out for the season with an injury, sophomore Christoph Bono will be counted on to begin the year as the starter in right. Bono made 55 appearances a year ago mostly as a defensive replacement, and will look to improve upon his offense from last season while continuing to play stellar defense in the outfield.
“Christoph is a tremendous defensive player,” said Savage. “He can really run and throw out there. It’s about him making adjustments at the plate and getting enough contact while also cutting down on his strikeouts, both of which he’s done this fall. He was really reliable in left last year and was a big part of our late game defensive adjustments. We look for him to have a bigger role in 2014.”
In left field, sophomore Ty Moore and freshman Brett Stephens will be competing for the starting job. Moore hit .219 with 10 RBI in 28 games last year after enjoying one of the finest high school careers of anybody in the state of California. At Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., Moore was named the 2012 Gatorade State Player of the Year and earned USA Today National All-America honors.
“Ty Moore is another guy who had a tremendous fall,” Savage said. “He looks to be our DH to start the season but will also see time in the outfield. We still have high expectations for him. Ty had an outstanding high school career and had some growing pains last year, but we look for him to be a force in that DH spot and to be a significant contributor in the outfield.”
Stephens, a native of Moraga, Calif., was a two-sport athlete at Campolindo High School, competing in both baseball and football. He had a huge summer for the Wenatchee AppleSox of the West Coast League, hitting .326 in 48 games while being selected to play in the league’s All-Star Game.
“Brett Stephens is someone who we really like,” said Savage. “He’s a strong, left-handed hitter who really hits the ball all over the ballpark. He is going to be a very good ballplayer in our eyes.”
Back in center field will be senior Brian Carroll, who was one of three players to start every game last season. Spending the majority of the year serving as the Bruins’ leadoff hitter in 2013, Carroll batted .258 with three doubles, two triples, 20 RBI and a .380 on-base percentage. He was especially a terror on the basepaths, leading the Pac-12 with 32 stolen bases in 40 attempts. Additionally, Carroll led the Bruins with 50 runs scored and 14 sacrifice bunts.
“We feel that Brian is the best defensive center fielder in the country,” Savage said. “He can go get the ball with anybody and has great leadership skills in center. He’s going to improve offensively as well and really knows his role as the leadoff guy. He knows how to get on base, steal a base and score and we expect big things out of him this season.”
UCLA’s 56-game regular season includes 30 Pac-12 Conference games against ten conference opponents. The Bruins open the season with four weekends of non-conference play. UCLA will kick off the season with an eight-game homestand that includes weekend series against Portland and Cal Poly and midweek games vs. Cal State Northridge and UC Santa Barbara. The Bruins will then travel across the country to Cary, N.C. to take part in the Notre Dame Classic from Feb. 28-March 2 at the USA Baseball Complex. There UCLA will meet tough non-conference foes Notre Dame, North Carolina State and Michigan. After the Notre Dame Classic, the Bruins will return home to host Pepperdine and Houston on March 7 and 8 respectively at Jackie Robinson Stadium. UCLA will then take on crosstown rivals USC in a road contest on March 9.
As in previous years, the Bruins will play a very competitive midweek schedule, lined with non-conference games against the aforementioned Cal State Northridge and UC Santa Barbara, Cal State Fullerton, Loyola Marymount, Long Beach State and UC Irvine. UCLA will also play a weekend series with Long Beach State from April 4-6.
The Bruins will open up Pac-12 play with a three-game series at California from March 14-16. The Bruins face a tough Pac-12 road slate in 2014 that includes trips to Arizona (April 11-13), Utah (April 17-19), Oregon State (May 9-11), and Washington (May 23-25). UCLA will host three-game Pac-12 series against Washington State (March 21-23), Arizona State (March 28-30), USC (April 24-26), Stanford (May 2-4) and Oregon (May 16-18).
UCLA’s last eight schedules have been ranked among the top-five-most difficult in the country, as ranked by Boyd’s World (strength of schedule ranking service, boydsworld.com). The Bruins’ schedule was ranked No. 1 in 2006 and 2010, No. 2 in 2007 and 2013, No. 3 in 2008 and 2009, No. 4 in 2012 and No. 5 in 2011. In addition, UCLA’s RPI has been ranked in the top-five two of the last four seasons. The Bruins were No. 1 in 2012 and No. 5 in 2010.
“We’re challenging ourselves again this season,” Savage said. “We feel we have five really tough non-conference weekends that are going to help us prepare for the Pac-12, as well as the postseason, and help our RPI. The Tuesday games really take care of themselves in Southern California with teams like Fullerton, Northridge, Irvine, LMU, UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State. Then obviously Pepperdine on the weekend. I think it’s a tremendous home schedule this year. You’ve got USC, Washington State, Oregon, Arizona State and Stanford all coming in for the Pac-12 slate and then Utah, Arizona, Oregon State, Washington and California on the road. The Pac-12 has won the National Championship the last two seasons and I think the depth of the conference is going to make it very difficult this year. We won 21 games last year and finished third and this year I think you may see 19 wins win the league. Overall, it’s a very tough schedule, but we want to play the best schedule possible and we feel that we are doing that again this season.”