The Bruins’ trip to the 2019 College World Series was a long time in the making.
Until it wasn’t.
From the top-ranked 2016 recruiting class to the young pitchers stepping up due to injuries in 2018, coach John Savage and UCLA baseball found themselves with plenty of expectations thrust upon them prior to this season. After winning the Pac-12 and locking down the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, the Bruins’ path to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, looked clear.
Savage and his roster of future pros may have come up short, but they said before the season this was one of the biggest years of their lives – regardless of the end result.
Targets on backs
When the Bruins opened the 2019 season, juniors first baseman Michael Toglia, second baseman Chase Strumpf and outfielder Jeremy Ydens were all named preseason All-Americans.
After opening the polls as a unanimous top-five squad, the Bruins were the No. 1 team in the country for the last 11 weeks of the regular season.
“We have been under the spotlight a lot, and they’ve handled it pretty well,” said coach John Savage. “I think the fact that we were No. 1 for as long as we have (been) certainly will help any honors or awards that these guys are getting – (Pac-12) Pitcher of the Year, All-Region, All-American – and I think everything’s kind of in stride right now.”
Junior right-hander Ryan Garcia reeled in the most awards on the team – including Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year and nods on the All-American First Team and Golden Spikes semifinalist list. Savage won the conference’s Coach of the Year award and redshirt junior righty Jack Ralston and sophomore reliever Holden Powell were named to All-American teams.
But the Bruins’ praise didn’t go unnoticed by their opponents.
Being such a high-ranked team all season long, senior designated hitter Jake Pries said he thinks the Bruins’ out-of-conference opponents definitely put targets on the Bruins’ backs when they came out west.
“Every team gives us their best punch,” Pries said. “It wasn’t the easy road to get where we were – it may look easy on the outside, but there have been some tough days. … Teams have really gone after us, which has been fun.”
Michigan gave UCLA its best punch three times – handing the Bruins their second, seventh and eighth home losses of the season and advancing to the College World Series in their place.
Moving on up
The 2019 MLB Draft started just hours before the Bruins took the field for their third elimination game of the Los Angeles regional.
Toglia, Strumpf and Garcia all got picked that night, and Savage said it immediately shook things up all over the field.
“We were a wreck the first couple innings,” Savage said. “(Toglia) just gets drafted, he makes two errors, you know, what the hell’s going on here? And I don’t know if (the draft) had anything to do with it, but it might have.”
Strumpf – who hit a three-run homer minutes after getting picked – said his dad ran down into the dugout to tell him the good news right after he finished rounding the bases.
Pries was picked No. 735 overall by the New York Yankees on Wednesday, right after he finished congratulating his teammate, junior left fielder Jack Stronach, for getting picked No. 623 to his hometown team, the San Diego Padres.
“I get lunch and I show up to the field, I put my phone down and I was getting ready to eat and (Savage) calls me into his office,” Pries said. “And all the coaches told me right when it happened. I was happy I was (at Jackie Robinson Stadium), honestly, I’m happy they got to tell me.”
Thirteen Bruins were drafted last week – a program record – but despite the career-altering stories, most Bruins said they were happy to move past it.
“There’s a lot of pressure off the field leading up to it,” Strumpf said. “All the scouts just wanting to talk to you, and you can push them off all you want, but they’re just gonna keep coming and coming. But we all agree that this is a great weight lifted off our shoulders and now we can just go play.”
Savage said he was happy it was over with too – he has had the draft break down his teams in the past.
According to the Pac-12 Coach of the Year, his 2012 team that made the trip to Omaha was a different squad after the draft started, eliminating them from the College World Series earlier than anticipated.
The end result was the same – the post-draft Bruins failed to bring home the title after falling to the Wolverines, leaving over a dozen players’ futures up in the air.
Years in the making
Strumpf said he has known where the program was headed since he first suited up in fall 2016.
“As (my class) stepped on campus, a lot of guys started talking, our coaches told us straight up, ‘Hey, there’s a reason you guys are all here,’” Strumpf said. “They knew that if we all ended up together, this could be something special.”
Two and a half years later, the Bruins’ long-awaited trip to Omaha was canceled a week early.
Just months before the final season in this era of UCLA baseball started, however, the Bruins suffered another loss. Mental skills coach Dr. Ken Ravizza was with the program from 2010 until he passed away in July 2018.
“Ravizza has been a big part of this team,” Savage said. “It’s just that calmness that he built around himself. … I see him being a major part of what we’re doing this year.”
But the Bruins had to move on – Savage put too much emphasis on the mental aspect of the game to go on without filling the position.
He said bringing in Dave Snow to fill Ravizza’s shoes helped to keep the players in the right mindset every time they took the field, even when they were facing elimination late in the postseason.
“When everybody is kind of on board on the mental game, it really sinks into the players,” Savage said. “His life lessons, (Snow’s) made me a much better person, a much better coach, handling players, the timing of messages to players.”
The Bruins fell one win short of a trip to Omaha, but Strumpf said before the season that winning a title wasn’t the only goal – he wanted to leave a legacy behind.
And while Savage said he thinks this team did that, he also had one last message for his team, his opponents and the rest of the country.
“We’ll be back.”