There was a point in 2018 when the Bruins looked like they were on the road to Omaha, Nebraska.
UCLA baseball (38-21, 19-11 Pac-12) was in the midst of an eight-game winning streak, wrapping up April with a 13-3 record. It had jumped up to the No. 7 spot in the national rankings, and had one of the top offenses and pitching staffs in the conference.
Then, as they had done in mid-March, the Bruins followed up a red-hot streak with an ice-cold one. UCLA started the year on a 10-2 run before closing out nonconference play on a three-game losing streak. In May, the Bruins were 7-8, including a 2-7 road stretch to finish up their conference schedule.
Coach John Savage said expectations were high in Westwood this season, and that his team was setting their sights on the College World Series in 2018.
“Obviously, it was a disappointment,” said sophomore left fielder Jeremy Ydens. “Our whole goal for the whole year was to get to Omaha and win the College World Series.”
UCLA’s season came to a close Sunday in the Minneapolis Regional, where it lost to host Minnesota 13-8. The Bruins had already played the Gophers the day before, squandering a late lead and falling in extras 3-2.
Redshirt sophomore right-hander Jack Ralston – Savage’s Tuesday starter for the second half of the season – got the start for UCLA in what would turn out to be its final game of the year.
But if it weren’t for injuries, the Bruins would not have had to turn to Ralston and his 6.44 ERA in a must-win situation.
UCLA had three starters go down at different points in the season, starting with junior left-hander Justin Hooper. The southpaw had a 3.69 ERA in nine starts his sophomore season, but he had Tommy John surgery before this season and missed all of 2018.
Redshirt sophomore right-hander Kyle Molnar also had Tommy John surgery in 2016, but was set to make his return to Westwood this season. He came back for one appearance, a scoreless inning of relief against Utah, before being shut down for the season again.
The Bruins’ Friday starter this season was supposed to be junior right-hander Jon Olsen, but one month after Olsen was struck in the face by a line drive, he hurt his elbow and needed season-ending surgery as well.
“Our expectations are beyond (the regionals),” Savage said. “We dealt with a lot of adversity at the beginning with losing all those arms.”
UCLA’s pitching staff was able to stay afloat for most of the season due to senior right-hander Jake Bird. The sinkerballer – who was selected by the Colorado Rockies in the fifth round of the MLB Draft on Tuesday – had a 1.99 ERA heading into the postseason.
Behind Bird, the Bruins needed starters to fill in the Saturday and Sunday roles. Freshman right-hander Zach Pettway stepped up by posting a 3.35 ERA, while sophomore righty Ryan Garcia moved from the Tuesday hole into the Sunday hole and had a 2.34 ERA and seven wins. Bird had high praise for the young arms, claiming that their experience this year will help them put together a more successful season in 2019.
“I know a lot of those younger guys are tough guys,” Bird said. “They can learn a lot from this year and their shortcomings and come back next year and give it all they’ve got to make a run at a national title – that’s the ultimate goal.”
At the plate, the Bruins relied on a very sophomore-heavy lineup this season.
First baseman Michael Toglia and second baseman Chase Strumpf were regular starters as freshman in 2017, and both were named to the All-Conference team this year. Toglia hit .332 with 11 home runs and 57 RBIs, while Strumpf had a .362 average with 12 homers and 53 RBIs.
Ydens – who also earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors – was another sophomore who joined the lineup this season, stepping in as the leadoff hitter when Savage pushed junior center fielder Daniel Amaral down to the six spot. Ydens hit .352 with a .984 on-base plus slugging percentage and said he was very proud of his team’s chemistry throughout the year.
“We were a quote unquote young team, just with a lot of freshmen and sophomores,” Ydens said. “Guys weren’t afraid of the moment. … Guys were pulling for each other. I thought we got a lot closer, and when you have a team that gets a lot closer with everybody, we’re more successful.”
And with the year coming to a close, Savage said he was thankful for his players, but also that he expected more from his team.
“I’m very proud of our team – I’m very proud of our seniors,” Savage said. “We were close, we had a good year, but certainly our expectations were beyond this.”