For the first time in 12 years, UCLA baseball enters the season unranked.
“And I am perfectly okay with that, because you have to earn it,” said coach John Savage. “I know that sounds kind of gimmicky, but at the same time, I don’t have any reason to believe why we should be ranked.”
Savage sent the team’s ranking to every player, making sure they all saw it.
The 2016 season marked the worst record for UCLA baseball in over a decade, after losing then-sophomore starting shortstop Nick Valaika and then-redshirt junior catcher Darrell Miller Jr.
There is a silver lining – the promise of a new year.
The new year brings promise of more offensive production than last season with the bats of the newly recruited freshmen class, Savage said. Last year’s freshmen are bringing in more experience and big returners junior first baseman Sean Bouchard and junior pitcher Griffin Canning will add a veteran presence on the team.
“When (Bouchard) got hurt last year, that really hurt,” said Savage. “You add the shortstop, the catcher and throw in one of our best offensive players – it was just too much to overcome. This year we just have a cast of characters who are much deeper.”
With the loss of five rising seniors to the MLB draft, UCLA needed to find a fix to the missing depth within their battered roster last year.
That fix was the incoming freshmen class, which Savage said will lead to a more offensive team, and tweaks to the pitching staff.
Canning, the Bruins’ Friday starter, will need to be the work horse for the team this year, said Savage. Canning is as strong as he’s ever been and throwing the ball as well as he ever has according to Savage, making him the “No. 1 guy” for UCLA.
Canning was named to the preseason Golden Spikes Award watch list for top amateur baseball player by USA Baseball and finished last season with 3.70 ERA and an overall record of 5-8.
The Bruins suffered a big loss in their No. 2 pitcher Kyle Molnar when he underwent Tommy John surgery in June. Molnar, who was the Sunday starter last year, posted a 3.32 ERA, the lowest ERA among UCLA starters, and tied for the team lead in wins. Molnar will miss the entire 2017 season.
Replacing Molnar in the No. 2 spot will be junior sinkerballer Jake Bird. UCLA announced that sophomore Jon Olsen will start Sundays regularly, meaning that sophomore Justin Hooper will likely slot into the Tuesday spot in the four-man pitching rotation.
Hooper, who Savage consistently compares to Randy Johnson, struggled in 14 games last year. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound lefty pitched to a 1-1 record with an ERA of 18.00 in 14 appearances last year. Over the summer, he pitched in the Cape Cod League and posted a 3.19 ERA.
“He needed to be redone and he has been redone,” Savage said. “And now it’s really a mental game. It’s managing the game now. When he repeats what we have been stressing and is on time, he’s legitimate.”
The overhaul of Hooper has been extensive – with Savage helping him with balance and strength over the rubber and his separation.
“He kind of changed his arm path,” Canning said. “He’s definitely cleaned up a bunch of stuff in his game, and he’s looking really good.”
The Bruins will look to senior Moises Ceja in the sixth, redshirt sophomore Matt Walker in the seventh, senior Scott Burke in the eighth and sophomore Brian Gadsby in the ninth. Matchups with lefties will potentially bring in relief options with freshman Nick Scheidler and redshirt sophomore Garrett Barker.
Gadsby lost the closer job to Ceja midway through last season. The right-hander Gadsby ended the year with a 4.54 ERA in 25 appearances and posted a 7.07 ERA in 10 relief appearances in Pac-12 play.
A year later, Savage will still look to Gadsby this season to take back the closing position.
“Everything looks different, and that’s why we have confidence,” Savage said. “He’s mentally stronger. … He’s jumped velocity probably four or five miles an hour – it’s a different guy. It was 85, and now it’s 90.”
Gadsby spent the summer in the Northwoods League making changes to his delivery and approach.
“You have to build confidence in a player. As a freshmen and having to replace (2014 right-handed pitcher David) Berg – it was a tall order,” Savage said. “I think he’s refurbished, and he is in much better shape.”
Valaika will be returning to the shortstop position after missing the 2016 season with a hamate bone injury. Freshman Chase Strumpf and sophomore Jake Hirabayashi will platoon at second, and Bouchard will play first.
After last year’s third baseman and .323 hitter Luke Persico was drafted and picked up by the Oakland Athletics in the 12th round, Savage looks to freshman shortstop Ryan Kreidler to slot in at the hot corner. Kreidler, was ranked No. 31 in the nation among shortstops.
In the bleak 2016 season, one of UCLA’s bright spots was then-redshirt freshman Daniel Rosica, a walk-on who mostly worked in the bullpen prior to 2015. Last year, UCLA only had a bullpen catcher and a converted infielder to play behind the plate. Now, the Bruins have three catchers: Rosica, sophomore Gavin Johns and freshman Will McInerny.
Savage said that it will be a three-headed monster behind the plate. The added depth from Johns and McInerny, along with Rosica, gives the Bruins multiple different options on who to put behind the plate.
“Rosie’s done too much to establish himself to just take the job away from him,” Savage said. “We never thought he’d play, and to his credit and to his demeanor and presence and mental toughness, he was able to do what a catcher needed to do in our program.”
For the Bruins’ outfield, there will be some new faces. Savage said that while his outfield has flexibility, his No. 1s will be freshman Michael Toglia in right, sophomore Daniel Amaral in center and senior Brett Stephens in left.
Amaral is known for his speed and ability to get on base. During the summer in the Northwoods League, Amaral stole 34 bases and is able to add a speed component to the Bruins’ lineup.
The outfield roster will not only add versatility with the left and right matchups, but the offensive bats in the outfield will be a different offensive team than last year, said Savage.
The 6-foot-5 Toglia has power in all fields, and he’s a switch hitter, who can play both first and right. He can cover a lot of ground, and his offense will make a significant contribution, Savage said.
“He can swing it – he can hit. His offense is his bread and butter,” Savage said. “We are going to have three substantial freshmen in the lineup from the start.”
For opening weekend the Bruins will play a three-game series against San Jose State. However, the rain in Southern California and flash flood warnings have pushed the series to Saturday through Monday.
This means that the Bruins will be playing four games in four days, facing UC Riverside on Tuesday.
The Bruins won’t get a shot at a currently ranked team until Pac-12 play starts against No. 19 Arizona on March 17.
“I have no problem with us not being ranked,” Savage said. “You can climb fast in baseball.”