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Head coach John Savage and UCLA are ready for the road that lies ahead in 2014.
Fresh off the first baseball national title in UCLA history, the Bruins know, that at least for the foreseeable future, they have no chance to be the hunter. They’re now firmly implanted as the most hunted team in college baseball.
It’s a much different position than the Bruins are used to, but they’re absolutely taking it in stride despite being a much different team than the one that took the field in Omaha last June and brought a national championship back to Southern California.
“It’s a different year, and a different team, and we’re going to get everyone’s best punch this year,” Savage said. “It’s important moving forward as a team that we make sure we do what we’ve done the last several years as a program. We need to be accountable, and we need to go out there and be as efficient as possible.”
Being efficient means the Bruins need to find a way to once again have one of the nation’s elite pitching staffs, something that primarily carried them to the national title last year. UCLA has some holes to fill in that department, but should be fine. Gone from last year’s club are starting pitchers Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig. With those departures, the Bruins are without a pair of arms that logged over 140 innings and finished the year with earned-run averages of 2.25 and 2.16, respectively.
Sure, replacing Plutko and Vander Tuig, at least on paper, might seem impossible at this point. But remember when the Bruins lost stalwarts Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer in the weekend rotation, and everyone around the country thought the Bruins would need a heck of a rebuilding campaign to get things headed the right direction? Yeah, UCLA has been to Omaha twice since those departures, and did so with Plutko and Vander Tuig, and Grant Watson, who’s a part of this year’s rotation, leading the way.
So, tap the brakes, and let’s make a bold prediction: Don’t look for the Bruins to skip much of a beat on the mound with sophomore right-handers James Kaprielian and Cody Poteet joining Watson in the weekend rotation.
“James and Cody are both very talented guys with four pitches, four good pitches, and they’re both going to be very good sooner or later. Clearly, we want that to happen sooner,” Savage said. “These two spent last season watching Adam and Nick, and seeing how they work, how they do bullpens, how they rebound from bad outings, pitch out of problems. You name it, they saw it. There’s some underlying incentive there for those guys when they hear people say we’re starting over.”
Kaprielian and Poteet might be new to the UCLA weekend rotation, but the talent and experience is there to continue where Plutko and Vander Tuig left off. Poteet gained valuable experience as the club’s midweek starter last year, tallying a 4.84 ERA in 70 2/3 innings, along with 56 strikeouts and 31 walks, while Kaprielian appeared in 34 games and had a 1.55 ERA in 40 2/3 innings of work.
From a stuff standpoint, both have elite potential. Kaprielian touched 94 on several occasions last season, and comfortably sits 90-93 with a good curveball, slider and improved changeup, while Poteet, a former PG High School All-American, also has a big-time arm, and just needs to improve his command of the zone. Savage says Poteet, along with lefty Grant Watson, have very much improved their secondary offerings, particularly the changeup.
“Kaprielian and Poteet have really made some impressive strides since last year. The improved secondary stuff is what sets them apart from what they were last season,” he said. “I think for all of these guys, including Watson, who doesn’t get enough headlines, the upcoming campaign boils down to how each commands the zone with their respective fastballs.”
Beyond the weekend rotation, the Bruins again are rock solid this season. Junior right-handed pitcher David Berg is back after tallying an incredible 0.92 ERA in 51 appearances and 78 innings of work last season, while a surprising arm could arise in redshirt freshman Nick Kern, who may or may not pitch this weekend against Portland because of a sore shoulder, but who has a premium arm with a fastball well into the 90s. UCLA also feels good about redshirt sophomore right-hander Jake Ehret, who sits in the low-90s with a plus slider and changeup. Specifically, look for Kern to be UCLA’s go-to guy in the 8th inning as the season progresses.
For the bit of bad news as it pertains to the pitching staff, UCLA will be without left-handed pitcher Hunter Virant for the year because of some lower back issues. Those injury issues aren’t specific to the pitching staff, though, as the greatest challenge facing this team is the loss of some key cogs in the field.
UCLA welcomes back some solid hitters in first baseman Pat Gallagher and versatile outfielder Brian Carroll, along with catcher Shane Zeile, who Savage expects to take a big step forward offensively this spring. However, the bad news lies in the loss of outfielder Eric Filia, who was an important part of UCLA’s Omaha run last year, because of labrum surgery.
The Bruins also could lose shortstop Kevin Kramer for the year because of a shoulder issue, though, Kramer will give it a go as designated hitter this weekend. Meanwhile, the Bruins are without second baseman Kevin Williams until at least mid-March because of an injury.
Make no mistake about it, the Bruins are banged up offensively, but don’t look for many excuses from these guys.
“I think the situation in the outfield is going to be just fine this spring,” Savage said. “The infield is a question mark, though, because we’re replacing two middle infielders, two pretty good infielders.”
With those injuries, look for Trent Chatterton and Brett Urabe to occupy the positions up the middle, while the outfield, as Savage suggested, should be fine with Christoph Bono, who gained ample experience in the postseason last year, taking over for Filia in right field, Carroll occupying center field, and the left field position coming down to freshman Brett Stephens or sophomore Ty Moore — both good options.
There’s no doubt the defending national champions enter the 2014 season with some bumps and bruises, perhaps even more than most teams, but one common trait of a title contender is a strong starting rotation and bullpen.
The bullpen is already there, and the starting rotation will follow.
SERIES TO WATCH
Washington State at No. 2 Cal State Fullerton: The Titans certainly are the headliner entering this series, but don’t sleep on the Cougars. Fullerton welcomes back an outstanding rotation with sophomores Justin Garza and Thomas Eshelman, and Grahamm Wiest leading the charge, while two-way player J.D. Davis shows off his stuff both offensively and on the mound this weekend … Washington State could be one of the bigger surprises in the Pac 12. Two-way player Jason Monda will start and play in the field this weekend, and WSU desperately needs a huge weekend out of him. This is a statement series for the Cougars, who went 23-32 and finished next to last in the Pac-12 last season.
No. 5 Indiana at Texas Tech: Tech head coach Tim Tadlock consistently talks about getting the Red Raiders back to the glory days, and capturing a couple of wins this weekend would be a good step in the right direction. The Red Raiders have a tough chore against hard-hitting Indiana this weekend, but have some reasons for optimism. For instance, color me a big fan of the TTU infield with third baseman Jake Barrios, shortstop Tim Proudfoot and second baseman Bryant Burleson leading the way, while sophomore right-handed pitcher Matt Withrow is a starting pitcher to watch … As for the Hoosiers, veteran lefty Joey DeNato gets the opening day start, while Kyle Hart (3.01) and Christian Morris (4.68) are the other two “for sure” starters at this point.
No. 11 Vanderbilt at Long Beach State: There was a time not too long ago when the Dirtbags were one of the nation’s premier programs and fighting Cal State Fullerton for Big West supremacy on an annual basis. Now, the Dirtbags would love nothing more than to just get to the NCAA postseason. Perhaps this weekend’s series against Vanderbilt gets LBSU headed the right direction. LBSU welcomes back starting pitcher Ryan Strufing, who missed last season because of an injury, while at the plate, hard-hitting Richard Prigatano is someone who could really get things going at the plate … As for the Commodores, junior right-handed pitcher Tyler Beede, one of the nation’s elite prospects, will start things off this weekend, while T.J. Pecoraro and sophomore righty Tyler Ferguson will round things off. Ferguson is an intriguing arm to watch with big-time potential. This weekend’s series also includes the return of Dansby Swanson, who battled the injury bug last season.
No. 17 Rice at Stanford: It’s almost become a tradition for the Owls and Cardinal to meet up early in the season every year, and this series should be a dandy as the Owls hope to take care of business against the relatively new-look Cardinal. Rice welcomes back a solid weekend rotation with right-handed pitcher Jordan Stephens, who has taken some big strides forward, leading the charge, while the back-end of games is in very good hands with All-American Zech Lemond, who has a mid-90s arm with dangerous secondary stuff, leading the way. Meanwhile, the Cardinal looks to surprise. Not a lot is expected of Stanford without right-handed pitcher Mark Appel, first baseman Brian Ragira, and other key cogs, but freshman pitcher Cal Quantrill is one of several young players that give coach Mark Marquess and his staff a lot of hope. There’s also hard-hitting junior third baseman Alex Blandino, who should be more consistent than ever this season.
No. 22 Kansas State at Cal Poly: You hate to say any series this early in the season is big from a rankings standpoint, but we’d be lying if we didn’t say that about the bout between the Wildcats and Mustangs. Cal Poly has a chance to make a real statement in the Big West this season with the return of big-time left-handed pitcher Matt Imhof and hard-throwing right-handed closer Reed Reilly, among others … Meanwhile, as for the Wildcats, there’s no more Jake Matthys, but they received an early Christmas present when second baseman Ross Kivett decided to return for his senior season. This is as good as it gets on the West Coast this weekend.
Maryland at No. 15 Florida: No, we’re not kidding, this series has upset written all over it if Maryland is as good as advertised. The Terrapins might not be known as a giant killer on the national stage, but they have good personnel this season and could make some serious noise. Maryland lost third baseman KJ Hockaday to transfer during the offseason, and lost Brady Kirkpatrick to injury. But keep an eye on staff ace right-handed pitcher Jake Stinnett, who sits 91-94 with a developing slider … For the Gators, bad news was received last week when coach Kevin O’Sullivan announced hard-hitting outfielder Harrison Bader would miss the weekend due to suspension, while all eyes in this series will be on UF junior right-hander Karsten Whitson, who finally hopes to return to normal from a velocity standpoint. Whitson, of course, is the former first-round pick to the Padres.
No. 25 Texas at California: Once again, we hate to put too much stock into one series, and the first series of the year to boot, but this one is big for the Longhorns. Perception on the ‘Horns the past couple of seasons has been that of a program that has lost all of its magic. It’s up to UT to change that perception, and it starts with the offense showing improvement. Outfielder Mark Payton returning for another year is huge, while freshmen such as Zane Gurwitz, Tres Barrera and Andy McGuire should provide immediate impacts. UT won’t have a problem from a pitching standpoint, and JUCO transfer righty Lukas Schiraldi is one to watch this weekend as he makes his debut for the ‘Horns … This also is an important series for California, who welcomes back several key cogs, including first baseman Devon Rodriguez, who returns from an injury, and if you remember, was a member of that College World Series club.
Fresno State at UC Irvine: The Bulldogs haven’t quite been the same since capturing the national title in amazing fashion a few years ago, but coach Mike Batesole feels like this team could get back to the glory. Fresno has some questions to answer this spring, but has an ace pitcher in righty Jordan Brink, who dazzled scouts during the fall with a fastball into the mid-90s and good overall stuff. He toes the rubber opening day against UC Irvine veteran pitcher Andrew Morales … The two teams also possess two of the nation’s most talented position players in outfielder Jordan Luplow for the Bulldogs and third baseman and PG Preseason All-American third baseman Taylor Sparks for the Anteaters. There’s a chance both of these teams are on the NCAA postseason bubble at the end of the year, so despite being so early in the season, this could be an important weekend.
No. 13 North Carolina at College of Charleston: The Tar Heels might have to dig out of the heavy snow to play actual baseball this weekend, but hey, they’ll get it done. UNC welcomes back yet another outstanding club with sophomore right-handed pitcher Trent Thornton leading the way on the weekend. Meanwhile, keep an eye on closer Chris McCue, who’s back and ready for another strong campaign, while outfielder Skye Bolt finally is healthy and Landon Lassiter is ready to have a monster year at the plate … Meanwhile, Charleston is looking for an upset with Carl Wise and Gunnar Heidt leading the way at the plate. But keep an eye on another Thornton, freshman Tyler Thornton for the Cougars, who has a big-time arm with a fastball well into the 90s.
Baylor at No. 18 Arizona State: The Bears have a lot of holes to fill all over the diamond this season to make a statement, but do at least have some hope with the return of some talented arms such as starting pitchers Brad Kuntz, Dillon Newman and Austin Stone leading the way. Stone is particularly interesting to watch after he made a velocity jump during fall workouts … For Arizona State, there are some offensive holes to fill early this season, but the return of outfielder Trever Allen and shortstop Drew Stankiewicz, among others, will prove huge, while Ryan Burr (moving from closer), Ryan Kellogg and Brett Lilek, who flashed elite stuff during the fall, spearhead ASU’s weekend rotation. Color me very excited about ASU’s potential the next few months.
Hughes Brothers Challenge (Wilmington, N.C.): The Seahawks are the leaders of the pack in the Colonial Athletic Association and play host to what should be an outstanding tournament this weekend. The headliner in this tourney certainly is top-ranked Virginia, who surprised some this week by announcing a weekend rotation of Brandon Waddell, Nathan Kirby and Josh Sborz. Waddell and Kirby being the rotation isn’t a surprise, but the Cavaliers, at least a week ago, were expected to finish things off with two-way star Nick Howard. Instead, Virginia will send rising right-handed pitcher Josh Sborz, who has a fastball into the mid-90s with big-time overall stuff, to the mound against UNC Wilmington in the tournament finale … Saturday’s pitching matchup between UNC Wilmington rising right-handed pitcher Jordan Ramsey and Kentucky talented righty Chandler Shepherd showcases the tournament, while the opening matchup between Kentucky’s A.J. Reed and Virginia’s Brandon Waddell ought to be a dandy as well. Also keep an eye on UNCW senior left-handed pitcher Mat Batts, who gets the opening day start against VMI. Batts is more of the crafty variety, but tallied a fantastic 3.47 ERA in 111 2/3 innings last season.
FRIDAY: Kentucky vs. Virginia | VMI vs. UNC Wilmington
SATURDAY: Virginia vs. VMI | Kentucky vs. UNC Wilmington
SUNDAY: Kentucky vs. VMI | UNC Wilmington vs. Virginia
Husker Classic (Tempe, Ariz.): Nebraska hits the road to the Southwest this weekend to host the Husker Classic in Arizona. The Huskers, by the way, have a real chance to make a statement this spring. Head coach Darin Erstad has put together some solid recruiting classes the past few years, and that should pay off beginning this year. Saturday’s matchup between Oregon State sophomore right-handed pitcher Andrew Moore and Nebraska rising left-handed pitcher Aaron Bummer ought to be a dandy, while the Beavers open the tournament with senior lefty Ben Wetzler against the big-time arm of Gonzaga right-hander Brandon Bailey. Last but not least, the start by OSU lefty Jace Fry on Sunday against Pacific will be one to watch. Fry has a big-time arm from the left side, but didn’t return to the mound until the end of the year in 2013 because of an injury … Speaking of Pacific, outfielder Gio Brusa is one to watch. He only batted .256 with four homers and 23 RBIs last season, but is ready to take a step forward offensively this spring.
FRIDAY: Gonzaga vs. Oregon State | Pacific vs. Nebraska
SATURDAY: Nebraska vs. Oregon State | Gonzaga vs. Pacific
SUNDAY: Pacific vs. Oregon State | Gonzaga vs. Nebraska
MONDAY: Pacific vs. Oregon State