Michael Toglia made it clear the Bruins were all in on a championship in 2019.
“That’s the goal, pretty simple,” said the junior first baseman.
UCLA baseball has had more preseason hype than it’s had in years – the Bruins were ranked inside the top five by every major polling outlet and were picked to win the Pac-12 for the first time since 2015.
“We have high expectations each and every year,” said coach John Savage. “But I think each coach would tell you teams are different year to year, and this year’s team has really been built over the last two or three years.”
The road to Omaha will start Friday against St. John’s – last year’s Big East champion – but junior second baseman Chase Strumpf said the path to a championship started in June against Minnesota.
“Bottom line from last year is we weren’t tough enough as a team,” Strumpf said. “There’s a lot to learn from and we’re just kind of bottling that up and using that for this year.”
Strumpf and the Bruins were eliminated by the Gophers in the NCAA Minneapolis regional after an up-and-down ride through the rankings all season long. UCLA rose as high as No. 7 in the country, but a late-season sweep against Arizona took it out of the running for hosting a regional in Westwood.
UCLA finished 38-21 a year ago, and fresh off their season-ending defeat, most of the Bruins shipped off to different corners of the country for summer ball.
Toglia returned for his second summer with the Cotuit Kettleers of the Cape Cod Baseball League, and he said he got some well-needed perspective when he was in Massachusetts.
“It’s reassurance that you belong and that your teammates, that they belong, because you know what talent looks like,” Toglia said. “And so it’s just reassurance that we belong here and that we’re going to go win the national championship.”
Juniors left fielder Jeremy Ydens, third baseman Ryan Kreidler, right-hander Ryan Garcia and redshirt junior right-hander Jack Ralston played for the eventual CCBL champion Wareham Gatemen. Savage said their experience winning in a prestigious league should give them the motivation to achieve similar goals with UCLA this year.
“We like winning players, we like chemistry, we like winning cultures,” Savage said. “We want our guys to go out and lead their teams to championships in the summer and come back and carry that over into the spring.”
Toglia, Strumpf and Ydens were each named to the Pac-12 All-Conference Team last season, helping lead the No. 2 offense in the conference and No. 25 offense in the country. The three combined to hit .350 with 29 home runs, 149 RBIs and a 1.043 on-base plus slugging percentage in 2018.
All three batters were named All-Americans prior to the 2019 season, but a year ago, Ydens wasn’t even a mainstay in the starting lineup.
With those three juniors back again, Savage’s lineup will look very similar this year, something Strumpf said will help the Bruins’ chemistry early in the season.
“Our chemistry building from last year was awesome, so we’re obviously very comfortable with each other,” Strumpf said. “Having that comfortable feeling while playing infield is going to be nice.”
Sophomore right fielder Garrett Mitchell – who Savage has long praised for being a five-tool player – hit .280 as a freshman, but was unable to notch a home run. However, Savage said having his speed in the outfield alongside Ydens and freshman center fielder Matt McLain will be a major advantage for UCLA this season.
And although he will be out for the next 10 days with flexor inflammation, Garcia will step into the role of ace after he put up a 2.23 ERA a season ago. Sophomore right-hander Zach Pettway – a Freshman All-American last year – will be the starter in the season-opener with Garcia out.
McLain is one of the biggest names to sign with UCLA in years. McLain was drafted in the first round of last year’s MLB Draft, but he passed up the pro contract to play under Savage in blue and gold.
“(McLain)’s one of those new, hybrid players – he can play short, he can play second, he can play center,” Savage said. “If you look in the big leagues, those are the kind of guys they want.”
While he may have the most buzz, McLain is not the only freshman primed to make an impact for the Bruins.
Freshman catcher Noah Cardenas will be getting ample playing time behind the plate, Savage said, now that catcher Ty Haselman has stepped away from the team. And with Garcia out, freshman right-hander Jesse Bergin is scheduled to be Savage’s Sunday man this weekend.
“It feels like they’ve been there for three years already,” Strumpf said. “We were able to catch (the freshmen) up to speed real quick, they’re really good players, so it wasn’t too hard for them to fit into our system.”
Six years after he helped UCLA win its lone College World Series in 2013, former closer David Berg is back in Westwood as a pitching coach.
Sophomore reliever Holden Powell – who was a Freshman All-American last year and is on the Stopper of the Year Award preseason watchlist – said it has been great to have Berg’s experience in the clubhouse.
“It’s been very helpful, coach Berg’s been huge to our program,” Powell said. “He brings a lot of key insight and he also has a lot of experience in the same role that I’m doing.”
To Omaha, and beyond
Toglia and Strumpf are both on the Golden Spikes Award Watch List, and outside of losing sinkerballer Jake Bird, the Bruins are also returning the majority of their pitching staff that ranked No. 6 in the country with a 3.08 ERA last year.
UCLA added the No. 6 recruiting class in the country, and with the rankings and All-American lists coming in, Toglia said he was aware there was more attention on the team this time around.
“There’s definitely a little more excitement, knowing the potential this team has in the future,” Toglia said. “But it really isn’t that much different, you know? Two years ago, … we had the same goal as we do now. Last year, we had the same goal as we do now.”
The Bruins’ goal is – per usual – to bring home another National Championship.
But if you ask Strumpf, he said there’s something more on the table this year.
“Winning the Pac-12 and winning in Omaha is great but there’s something beyond that,” Strumpf said. “You can create a dynasty, create a legacy within this team. … If you can go win a natty and leave something behind like a legacy, I think that’s our ultimate goal.”