The Bruins are leaving last season behind them.
In the 2019 season, No. 14 UCLA baseball set program records with 47 regular-season wins and 24 Pac-12 conference wins. The Bruins won their first conference title since 2015 en route to earning the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, before being eliminated in the Los Angeles Super Regional by Michigan.
“It’s a new team, same program,” said coach John Savage. “We felt we had a terrific season last year, but it’s a whole new season. You don’t try to hold onto things as the next season begins.”
Despite getting upset by the Wolverines – who would go on to be the NCAA College World Series runner-up – and losing 12 players to the 2019 MLB Draft and transfer portal, the Bruins enter 2020 ranked inside the country’s top 15 and No. 2 among Pac-12 teams.
“There are a lot of people that are us writing off as a rebuild year and a team that’s not experienced enough – it’s the polar opposite,” said senior relief pitcher Kyle Mora. “We know what kind of team we are and what we are capable of. The bottom line is we haven’t been to Omaha since 2013 when we won it, and that’s not OK.”
Ousted a game shy of Omaha
The Bruins rode a 4-1 record into the NCAA Los Angeles Regional to advance to Super Regionals, but were then eliminated by Michigan two games to one.
The Bruins hadn’t lost a three-game series all season when the Wolverines came to Westwood in June. After losing the series opener, it took extra innings for UCLA to force a do-or-die game three, which it ended up conceding anyway.
Junior shortstop Kevin Kendall – who delivered the double in the 12th inning to force game three against Michigan – said the loss is still the Bruins’ motivating force as the 2020 season approaches.
“That was a tough pill to swallow, when you end your season in that fashion, especially from what we expected from our own team,” Kendall said. “That feeling doesn’t leave you, and the returners are hopefully going to make adjustments this season and turn that story around.”
Kendall and Mora, who was tagged with the loss in the Bruins’ final game of 2019 after surrendering one run to Michigan in game three’s fifth inning, are among 23 of the 2019 Bruins returning to the team in 2020.
Kendall tallied a .258 batting average and 13 RBIs in 44 appearances for the Bruins in 2019, while Mora led the relief staff with 47 appearances out of the bullpen, posting a 2.09 ERA and 67 strikeouts.
Gone with the draft
The 2019 MLB Draft saw a program-record 13 Bruins get selected – 11 of whom were on the 2019 team, as well as two members of the 2018 team – and resulted in two prospective Bruins being signed professionally before ever suiting up for UCLA.
Five members of UCLA’s 2019 pitching staff – which had a collective 2.60 ERA and 1.05 WHIP paced the country – were drafted, including then-junior right-hander Ryan Garcia and then-redshirt junior right-hander Jack Ralston, who started games one and two of the Super Regionals against Michigan, respectively.
The Bruins will also face the 2020 season without their top four home run hitters of 2019 in then-juniors first baseman Michael Toglia, infielder Ryan Kreidler and second baseman Chase Strumpf and then-senior designated hitter Jake Pries. The four former Bruins combined for 47 of the Bruins’ 67 home runs in 2019.
Savage said he expects three position players – sophomore catcher Noah Cardenas, junior outfielder Garrett Mitchell and sophomore outfielder Matt McLain – to step up in place of the Bruins that have left.
He also emphasized the return of junior right-hander Zach Pettway, who was out after April 18 with a forearm injury in 2019.
“(Cardenas, Mitchell and McLain) – those are three significant players on this roster,” Savage said. “People don’t talk about losing (Pettway) last year as much as they should. We lost one of our rotation guys, and it’s nice having him back.”
Pettway was the opening day starter for the Bruins in 2019 and was 2-2 with a 4.55 ERA and 60 strikeouts.
In the batter’s box, the trio of Mitchell, Cardenas and McLain, were the fifth, sixth and seventh home run hitters for the Bruins in 2019, respectively, and will be the only players on the 2020 roster to have appeared in at least 58 of the Bruins’ 63 games last year.
“(Mitchell) is clearly one of the best athletes in college baseball,” Savage said. “He’s really a five-tool guy. He can play center field at the highest level. He can throw. He can run. Offensively, he stepped up last season, and we think he’ll have a little more power this year.”
Next in line
The Bruins will bring 10 new faces into the fold this season, with eight freshmen and two junior transfers being added to the 2020 team.
Among the newcomers are freshman shortstop Michael Curialle and freshman catcher Darius Perry, both of whom were drafted by the Colorado Rockies in 2019 but chose to attend UCLA instead of signing MLB contracts.
“(Perry) and (Curialle) have been great,” Mora said. “They’ve picked up the system pretty quickly, and that’s a testament to our program: We have a lot of guys that turn down money to go play pro-ball because they know the opportunity that they have to win here.”
Freshman outfielder Emanuel Dean – the top-ranked outfield prospect in California and 10th-ranked nationally – will also be rostered in the 2020 season. Dean batted .272 in 33 games with the Walla Walla Sweets in the West Coast League this summer.
UCLA will start the 2020 season by welcoming UC Riverside – which it hasn’t faced since falling 3-2 in 2017 – to Westwood on Friday at 6 p.m. at Jackie Robinson Stadium.