The Bruin bats showed flashes in the first couple months of the season, but recent changes to the lineup and returns from injury increased consistency.
Coach John Savage expected No. 13 UCLA baseball (22-10, 11-4 Pac-12) to be a dangerous hitting team in the preseason. However, the Bruins lost several games due to disappointing offensive performances, including a 3-2 loss to USC, a 4-0 loss to Arizona State and a series loss to California on March 31 in which UCLA scored nine runs total.
“I would say that we didn’t come out the way we wanted to against Cal. Our team game overall wasn’t great,” said freshman right fielder Garrett Mitchell. “We needed to work together as a team and all pull the same weight (and) know what our roles are for this team.”
Savage made several role changes and adjustments to the batting order in the past couple weeks, and UCLA has improved its offensive production. The Bruins are averaging more than eight runs a game in the month of April, including 34 in a series sweep against Utah last weekend.
Despite suffering two midweek losses during the same timeframe, UCLA’s hitters are finding their stride.
Junior center fielder Daniel Amaral was the leadoff hitter for most of the year, but now he and left fielder Jeremy Ydens alternate between the leadoff and sixth spots.
Ydens’ return to the lineup has been crucial to UCLA’s April comeback. The sophomore missed two weeks in late March with a hand injury, but returned for UCLA’s 13-1 rout of Loyola Marymount. In the nine games since his return, he’s batted .395 with 21 total bases, boosting his season average up to .372.
Sophomore Kyle Cuellar started as the designated hitter for most of the season after batting .319 in the 2016-2017 season – good enough for him to be second on the team that year. Cuellar has posted two hits since the season-opening series against Portland and is batting just .122 on the year.
Jack Stronach has claimed the role in recent weeks, hitting fifth in the lineup. The sophomore is ranked as the fifth-toughest batter to strike out in the Pac-12 and is batting .287 this season.
Savage also moved sophomore Ryan Kreidler from shortstop to third base after the California series, pushing junior third baseman Jake Hirabayashi to the bench.
Kreidler has hit .286 since, better than his season average of .244, and is third on the team in RBI behind sophomore first baseman Michael Toglia and sophomore second baseman Chase Strumpf.
Freshman Kevin Kendall replaced Kreidler at shortstop, starting for the first time in the Arizona State series opener.
“(Kendall’s) an unbelievable shortstop, so I’m totally fine moving over if he’s going to play there. I played a little bit of third last year, so I’m comfortable with it,” Kreidler said. “He’s unbelievable up the middle and he and (Strumpf) have good chemistry, so it’s seamless.”
Kendall is batting .265 despite not earning a hit in 17 at-bats over a four-game stretch last week.
“We’re definitely improving with more playing time,” Strumpf said. “(Kendall’s) not the loudest guy, but neither am I, so we just kind of work together. We’re usually on the same page without saying a word. It’s nice having Kreidler over at third and (hearing) his voice is really nice as well.”
Mitchell saw limited at-bats in the first few months of the season. The right fielder sat out three weeks due to a concussion in March, but is now healthy and has solidified his role in the starting lineup, batting seventh behind Kreidler.
“The offensive punch and the offensive characteristics were there a little bit last year,” Savage said. “We knew we were stronger, we added a few pieces – Mitchell and Kendall (are) nice added piece(s). We have a lot of depth offensively.”
Redshirt junior catcher Daniel Rosica and sophomore catcher Will McInerny alternate who takes the starting role to accommodate for who is pitching.
The two top hitters from the Bruins’ talented sophomore class, Toglia and Strump, round out the middle order. Toglia is batting .319 with 13 doubles, six homers and 28 RBI, while Strumpf is batting .316 with seven doubles, eight homers and 35 RBI.
“It (is) encouraging. (Assistant) coach (Bryant) Ward has done a really good job with those hitters,” Savage said. “They’re starting to buy in. We move Kendall to short, we got Mitchell back, we got Ydens back, so we got some health back. (But) things happen and you got to deal with adversity and whoever deals with that best will come out of this thing.”