After UCLA baseball won the 2013 national championship, the bar was raised, expectations were heightened and the team entered the season with a target on its back. The Bruins had reached the pinnacle of college baseball, and now every team would be coming for them.
Even though the team had lost many of its top players from the championship squad to the MLB Draft, the Bruins still looked poised to make the playoffs with the returners that they had.
However, that’s when the injury bug hit. Before the season even started, UCLA lost its projected best hitters, junior shortstop Kevin Kramer and junior outfielder Eric Filia, to season-ending injuries. Sophomore pitcher Hunter Virant would also be lost for the year.
And it wouldn’t stop there. Junior third baseman Chris Keck’s season ended in April because of a blood clot in his arm. In addition, junior closer David Berg, senior outfielder Brian Carroll and senior designated hitter Kevin Williams all missed significant time with various ailments.
“We never had the team that we drew up (before the season) on the field,” said coach John Savage.
“We were behind the eight ball a little bit, but just in terms of the returners and the experience we had coming back not on the field ever, that was difficult,” Savage said.
The team started off the season 7-7, alternating win and loss streaks. The Bruins then appeared to find their groove, as they won nine of their next 10 games.
Despite looking like it had turned a corner, UCLA limped along toward the finish line. The Bruins fell out of the playoff race as they went 7-11-1 before losing 10 in a row and winning two of its final three games to finish 25-30-1 and 12-18 in Pac-12 play.
“I think you just really have to factor in the injuries. I think the expectations with the team that we had after the injuries, I don’t know where the bar is on that,” Savage said. “I don’t want to overstate and make excuses, but it was a pretty dramatic amount of injuries.”
The injuries translated into an offensive inconsistency, as the team had the third-lowest batting average in the Pac-12, only hitting .252, in comparison to the national average of .270. The five teams in the conference to make the postseason averaged a total of 305 runs scored, while UCLA scored only 200 runs on the year.
“We had to find our identity. I think at times we knew who we were, and at times we got away from it,” said sophomore outfielder Ty Moore. “We just couldn’t get back on our feet in time.”
One of the few positives from this season was the growth of the pitching staff, especially from sophomore James Kaprielian, redshirt sophomore Jake Ehret and redshirt junior Max Schuh. Kaprielian, who was the team’s ace after spending last year in the bullpen, struck out 108 batters in 106 innings with a 2.29 ERA. Schuh and Ehret were key setup men throughout the year, paving the way for the dominant Berg.
“Ever since (former Bruin pitchers Adam) Plutko and (Nick) Vander Tuig and (Zack) Weiss and those guys left, we knew that they were going to be a young pitching staff but very talented,” said junior catcher Shane Zeile. “It was very cool to see them grow and mature. … We have one of the best staffs in the country, and it’s only going to get better.”
If there’s a bright side to all of the injuries, it’s that many young players gained invaluable experience this year, which will be crucial as the team attempts to rebound next season.
“Some of those guys played well, and they probably played a lot more than they anticipated and surely more than we anticipated,” Savage said. “But I think we can use that experience to our favor for next year and build off it.”
The follow-up to the championship season may not have gone as planned, but the Bruins could have set the foundation for their next title run.