UCLA baseball’s season ended the same way that it started – with a one-run bout.
UCLA salvaged a 3-2 win against San Jose State on Feb. 18 to begin the season but couldn’t save it last weekend in the regional round of the NCAA tournament, falling to San Diego State 3-2 in 13 innings.
By punching their ticket into the NCAA tournament, the Bruins proved they had developed since starting the season at 6-11. But coach John Savage wasn’t satisfied with just a postseason berth.
“We’re used to winning, we’re used to going to Omaha. (We) won a national championship (in 2013), played for a national championship (in 2012). I’m not really into the experience thing,” Savage said. “At the end of the day I’m happy for those freshman, but it’s UCLA baseball. We expect to win. We expected to win this regional, and we just didn’t.”
Close games plagued UCLA early in the year and inexperience showed – 23 players on the team’s 37-man roster are underclassmen.
The pitching staff was electric toward the beginning of the year, boasting a 2.14 ERA after seven games, but the offense sputtered when given opportunities to win late in the game or extend leads.
The Dodger Stadium College Baseball Classic in early March highlighted the Bruins’ struggle at the dish, as the team compiled 12 hits in 100 at-bats throughout the Classic’s three games.
“We are playing tremendous defense right now. We are pitching,” Savage said following a 4-3 loss to USC in the final game of the Classic. “We clearly need to get our offense going. We’ve lost several games the way we lost tonight.”
Once hitters started to show some life at the plate, pitchers couldn’t keep opponents off the board.
During its worst stretch of the year, a six-game losing streak in the middle of March, the Bruins yielded at least four runs in each game, while averaging just 3.6 runs a game in that span.
But a victory in the final game against a hot Arizona team on March 19 didn’t only salvage the series for UCLA, but it also changed the tide of the season.
The Bruins won seven of their next eight, working their way up the Pac-12 standings in the process.
“I think since that Sunday Arizona game we’ve been a different team,” Savage said after a 17-4 victory against Arizona State on April 2. “I literally think we are a different team than we were two weeks ago, and I think playing Arizona the first weekend and losing two out of three – it comes back to that Sunday.”
A pair of sweeps in May – against USC and Utah – gave UCLA a confidence boost and a critical set of wins heading into the season’s final stretch.
With a third-place finish in the Pac-12 and a handful of wins against teams in the RPI top 25, the Bruins returned to the NCAA tournament after failing to qualify last year.
But despite winning six of their last eight regular season games and several game-winning opportunities against both Texas and San Diego State, UCLA was unable to advance to the second stage of the event.
The Bruins finished the year 9-13 overall in one-run affairs.
“There’s nothing really we could’ve done,” Savage said after the team’s final loss. “I thought we pulled all the strings in the right way. We just didn’t get it done.”
This season could be just the beginning for UCLA.
The Bruins will sport a young roster, despite losing multiple players after this year. Junior pitchers Griffin Canning and Jake Bird, along with junior first baseman Sean Bouchard, will likely forego their senior seasons after the MLB Draft. Starting left fielder Brett Stephens, pitchers Moises Ceja and Scott Burke, as well as infielder Nick Kern, will all graduate.
But UCLA will have sophomore Kyle Molnar, who dazzled during his freshman year, back in the rotation, along with sophomores Jon Olsen, an All-Pac-12 honoree, and Justin Hooper, who was the Bruins’ top recruit last season.
A trio of relievers – sophomore Brian Gadsby, redshirt sophomore Matt Walker and freshman Nick Scheidler – will be back in 2018, along with a new group of recruits and at least seven starters.
Freshmen played a significant role for UCLA during the campaign, especially in the team’s final stretch. Savage expected at least three freshmen to start before the season began – third baseman/shortstop Ryan Kreidler, second baseman Chase Strumpf and right fielder Michael Toglia. The three started in at least 48 of the team’s 57 games.
Other freshmen contributed for the Bruins as well. Designated hitter Kyle Cuellar, who became an everyday starter early on, led the team in batting average before being sidelined by an injury near the end of the season, while third baseman Jack Stronach and outfielder Jeremy Ydens each played in at least 25 games.
In the bullpen, Scheidler led the team with 36 appearances, solidifying his role as a middle reliever and specialist against left-handed hitters.
“I think it’s been significant that we’ve let those guys play,” Savage said in an interview two weeks ago. “They’ve struggled, but they haven’t struggled enough to prevent us from where we are today and that’s the bottom line.”
With a bolstered club heading into next year, the Bruins will look to make two consecutive tournament appearances for the first time since 2012 and 2013.