2009 UCLA Season Preview

UCLA enters the season with a talented nucleus of seniors and juniors, a veteran group which has helped lead the Bruins to three consecutive NCAA postseason appearances for the first time in program history. Complemented by a supporting cast of sophomores looking to push for playing time and freshmen seeking to make an immediate impact, UCLA intends to elevate its program in 2009.

A group of five seniors, anchored by redshirt senior left-hander Brendan Lafferty, has led UCLA to three NCAA Regional berths and one NCAA Super Regional appearance (2007) the past three seasons. A core group of 10 juniors – led by starting pitchers Gavin Brooks and Charles Brewer and power hitters Gabe Cohen and Casey Haerther – will be instrumental to UCLA’s success in 2009.

UCLA’s balanced team continues with its sophomore class, a group of players that did not see significant playing time on the Bruins’ veteran-laden 2008 squad. Several young arms, including Matt Grace, Dan Klein and Rob Rasmussen, will be expected to contribute heavily this spring, while position players such as Raul Duran, Niko Gallego, Chris Giovinazzo and Brett Krill should compete for playing time and starting spots.

In addition, a solid group of nine newcomers – eight freshmen and one four-year college transfer – enters its first season in Westwood. Headlined by right-handed pitchers Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole and highly-touted infielders Tyler Rahmatulla and Chris Amezquita, this season’s incoming class will be counted on to contribute from the start.

For fifth-year head coach John Savage and the Bruin baseball team, the stakes are high and the goals are clear. After having finished third in the Pac-10 Conference before entering a Los Angeles-area NCAA Regional as a No. 2 seed the past three seasons, UCLA looks to capture its first Pac-10 Conference title since 2000 and advance to the College World Series for the first time since 1997.

“We have been in a tough position the past three years when you talk about advancing to Omaha,” Savage said. “But we can control our destiny by playing well and winning ballgames against the nation’s best teams. Winning your conference title and earning a No. 1 seed has been the formula for many of our competitors to advance to the College World Series.”

PITCHING

Letterwinners Returning/Lost: 11/1
Weekend Starters Returning/Lost: 2/1

Boasting a deep pitching staff one year ago, UCLA returns every arm from its 2008 season with the exception of third-round MLB draft selection Tim Murphy (Texas Rangers). UCLA features a strong balance between each of its four classes, and looks for significant contributions from its seniors to its freshmen.

“In terms of pitching depth, this is the best group we have had in my time at UCLA,” Savage said. “We potentially have six or seven frontline starters, and we’ll have to balance their workloads.”

Brooks and Brewer figure to play prominent roles in the rotation. Brooks has spent his career at UCLA pitching on weekends, and Brewer led UCLA with nine wins as the Saturday starter one year ago. Additionally, UCLA returns its most veteran player in Lafferty.

“With Charles, Gavin and Brendan, we have a nucleus of pitchers that brings experience and success to the staff,” Savage said. “These are guys who have succeeded on the big stage against some of the nation’s most talented teams. Gavin and Brendan are two quality left-handers who throw above-average fastballs with good changeups and strong sliders.”

Brooks finished his freshman season in 2007 throwing three consecutive complete games, including back-to-back complete game efforts in postseason play. The native of Vista, Calif., finished his sophomore season (2008) with a 6-3 record and 5.07 ERA after having gone 4-0 in April.

Brewer not only proved to be a reliable weekend starter in 2008, but he showed the ability to overcome a difficult freshman season. Beset by mononucleosis early in 2007, followed by shoulder tightness upon his return, the former standout at Chaparral High School made just six relief appearances as a freshman.

“Charles is a guy who really did a nice job on Saturdays for us last year,” Savage said. “We look for him to not only repeat, but to be better than he was last year. I think you are going to see more strikeouts out of him this year, and his numbers will probably be a bit more balanced.”

Lafferty, who led UCLA with 33 appearances (all in relief) in 2008, may see his role shift to that of a starting pitcher or closer. The 6-foot-5 left-hander went 4-3 with a 3.74 ERA last spring, solidifying his status as one of the most durable and reliable pitchers in the Pac-10 Conference.

Other veteran arms expected to compete for time on the mound include senior Jason Novak and juniors Garett Claypool, Matt Drummond and Jordan Haver. Novak, a four-year senior from Agoura, Calif., has made 67 appearances in three seasons. One year ago, Novak led the Bruins with four saves in 20 relief appearances, recording a 3.60 ERA in 35 innings. Claypool and Drummond have contributed as starters and relievers, and Haver has held the opposition at bay in limited playing time.

UCLA’s sophomore class of pitchers is headlined by Klein, Rasmussen and Grace. Klein and Rasmussen were challenged by injuries in 2008, yet have bounced back and are prepared for big seasons in 2009. Rasmussen missed nearly three months of the season with a broken left foot, sustained from a line drive comebacker in his collegiate debut on Feb. 27. Grace saw the most action of any of the three, appearing in 17 games and posting a 3.55 ERA. UCLA also looks to regain Erik Goeddel, a 2007 ALFAC All-America right-hander who redshirted as a true freshman in 2008 while nursing an elbow injury.

UCLA’s most intriguing pitching prospects hail from its freshman class. Cole enters the 2009 season as a leading candidate to start in UCLA’s weekend rotation. A first-round 2008 MLB draft selection by the New York Yankees (28th overall), he finished his senior season at Orange Lutheran with 121 strikeouts and 18 walks in 75.2 innings, going 8-2 on the hill with a 0.46 ERA.

Cole and Bauer were the only two pitchers named to the Los Angeles Times’ High School All-Star Team last season. Yet Bauer accomplished the feat as a junior at Hart High School before graduating in Dec. 2008 to enroll at UCLA in January. The 6-foot-1 right-hander from Valencia, Calif., captured first-team All-CIF Division I honors after going 12-0 with a 0.79 ERA, amassing 106 strikeouts and just 15 walks in 70.2 innings.

“With Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, we feel like we have the two best freshmen arms in the country. I don’t think you can draw it up any better with regard to the balance of pitchers between our four classes,” Savage said. “We like our balance of left-handers and right-handers, and our pitchers realize that they really need to carry the load, especially early in our season.”

CATCHING
Letterwinners Returning/Lost: 2/2
Weekend Starters Returning/Lost: 0/1

UCLA will look to freshman Steve Rodriguez to serve as the team’s primary backstop in 2009. A four-year varsity letterwinner at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, Calif., Rodriguez assumes a major task as the receiver for a talented, veteran pitching staff. The Bruins lost their primary two catchers from the last two seasons – three-year starting catcher Ryan Babineau was selected in the 17th round of the major league draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Brent Dean earned his degree (eligibility expired).

“Steve is a very good receiver and a very accurate thrower,” Savage said. “He’s a good communicator and brings calmness to the game that you usually don’t see with players that young. He needs to be our leader back there to manage all these talented arms. I believe he is capable of performing at a high level.”

Backing up Rodriguez in 2009 will be senior Gino Aielli, who transferred to UCLA in the summer of 2007 from Saddleback Junior College, sophomore Chris Giovinazzo and senior Cody Decker. Both Aielli and Giovinazzo have been part of the Bruin baseball program for over a year and have the ability to compete elsewhere on the field. Aielli is a versatile infielder with experience playing second and third base, and Giovinazzo played in 18 games as an outfielder, pinch-hitter and pinch-runner one year ago, making 13 outfield starts. Decker played catcher at Santa Monica High School and has competed as a first baseman and designated hitter at UCLA the last three seasons.

“Chris, Gino and Cody are good athletes who will battle for playing time behind the plate,” Savage said. “Chris could definitely be a frontline catcher for our team down the road. Gino is a very versatile player, a utility guy who can play many positions. And Cody has been in our program the past three seasons and has shown the ability to play behind the plate.”

INFIELD
Letterwinners Returning/Lost: 4/3
Weekend Starters Returning/Lost: 1/3

The departure of stalwart Bruin infielders Jermaine Curtis (third base), Brandon Crawford (shortstop) and Alden Carrithers (second base) has virtually opened all four infield positions in 2009. Haerther, the lone returning starter (first base) from UCLA’s 2008 infield, practiced at both first and third base during the team’s fall scrimmages. Haerther played very well defensively at first base last spring and may move across the diamond to man the hot corner.

“Casey played gold-glove caliber defense at first base for our ballclub last year,” Savage said. “We believe that he can play well at third base, too. He has a great arm and good feet. We’re looking for him to hold down that position.”

Freshman Chris Amezquita, a talented product from Servite High School, will be another leading candidate to earn playing time at third base. Limited by a wrist injury as a senior in high school last season, Amezquita was named an AFLAC All-America selection in 2007 following a junior season in which he batted .394 with three homers and a school record-tying 14 doubles.

“Chris gives us another great option at third base,” Savage said. “He is a very offensive player with a tremendous arm.”

Both Gallego and Rahmatulla should emerge as UCLA’s middle infielders, at shortstop and second base. Gallego played in 19 games as a true freshman one year ago, making 11 starts at second base. Entering the 2009 season, Gallego may move to shortstop. A quick defensive asset who can cover ground, Gallego is the son of former UCLA standout and 11-year major league veteran Mike Gallego, currently an assistant coach with the Colorado Rockies. Niko batted .317 in 41 at-bats in 2008.

“Niko has matured as a player and gotten stronger in the offseason,” Savage said. “He’s a steady player whose speed really shows up on defense. He’s a guy, along with Blair Dunlap, who you’re going to probably see hitting in the top of the lineup.”

Rahmatulla has experience playing shortstop and could emerge as the Bruins’ starting shortstop or second baseman. A very accomplished ballplayer in high school, Rahmatulla will assume an important role in UCLA’s young infield. The four-year varsity letterwinner at Mater Dei High School captured first-team All-CIF Division I and Trinity League Co-Player of the Year accolades as a junior and senior. The three-time Mater Dei team MVP batted .419 as a senior after hitting at a .351 clip as a junior.

“We really like Tyler Rahmatulla up the middle, and we think that he is as solid as a rock,” Savage said. “He’s has a ton of experience in the middle of the infield, having primarily played at shortstop while in high school. We know he can play second base, and we look for him and Niko Gallego to steady our ballclub up the middle.”

Senior Eddie Murray, who has backed UCLA’s veteran corps of infielders the past three seasons, should compete for more playing time in 2009. A reliable, veteran infielder, Murray played in 18 games as a freshman, making six starts at second base. Two years ago, Murray backed up Curtis at third base, playing in 29 games and making 13 starts at that position. In 2008, the Artesia, Calif., resident played in 15 contests.

“Eddie has played the past three years behind a bunch of frontline infielders, but he can certainly step in and compete,” Savage said. “He is a very versatile player who can get the job done at second, shortstop and third. With several question marks around our infield, we’ll look for a player like Eddie to take some of the pressure off Tyler at shortstop or Niko at second.”

Alex Weber-Shapiro, a junior who transferred from Claremont-McKenna University last summer, has emerged as a prime candidate to start at first base in 2009. A two-time NCAA Division III All-America selection for the Stags, Weber-Shapiro brings an impressive resumé to UCLA. The Berkeley, Calif., resident batted .464 as a sophomore en route to capturing first-team All-SCIAC accolades. He recorded a school record 38-game hitting streak, tied for the seventh-best mark in Division III history.

“Alex was a pleasant surprise for our team in the fall,” Savage said. “He brings us that coveted left-handed presence in the lineup. We need him to be that left-handed threat for us, and we feel like we’ve got a player who can step in there and hit in the middle of the lineup.”

Other players to watch at first base include Haerther and senior Cody Decker, who started 27 games at the position his sophomore season (2007). Decker should push for playing time as either the designated hitter or as a first baseman. A talented slugger from nearby Santa Monica, Calif., Decker enters his senior season having belted a team-leading 26 career home runs and totaled 100 RBI. Decker looks to regain his form from the 2007 season (14 HR, 57 RBI), after having posted a .218 average with seven homers and 30 RBI in 2008.

“Cody really turned himself into a complete hitter two years ago, and we know he can be that guy again,” Savage said. “He has shown that he can hit for a high average and with plenty of power. He’s also an experienced guy at first base and has become a solid defender.”

OUTFIELD
Letterwinners Returning/Lost: 6/2
Weekend Starters Returning/Lost: 2/1

UCLA’s outfield depth, bolstered by the return of several experienced players, should be among this team’s most talented positions. Two former All-NCAA Regional Team selections – Justin Uribe and Blair Dunlap – have battled their way back from injuries and look to contribute in left and center field, respectively, this spring. Uribe has started in all three outfield positions the last two seasons, before missing the final two-thirds of 2008 with an elbow injury. As a freshman in 2007, he led UCLA with a .526 average (10-for-19) in five postseason contests and earned All-Long Beach Regional Team honors.

“While we have some questions to answer behind the plate and around our infield, we’re very excited about who we have back in the outfield,” Savage said. “Justin has shown a knack for getting on base and has emerged as a very difficult out. He has played his best on the largest of stages, and we look for him to have a big junior season.”

Dunlap batted .300 as a freshman in 2006, earning All-Malibu Regional Team honors in three games at Pepperdine. A nagging shoulder injury sidelined the former Santa Margarita High School standout in 2007 (earned medical redshirt), and Dunlap bounced back with a resilient sophomore campaign in 2008. He played in 44 games, making 34 outfield starts, and concluded his junior season batting .250, earning All-Fullerton Regional Team accolades in four games at Cal State Fullerton.

“We like Blair’s athleticism and his ability to play center field,” Savage said. “He performed at a high level when our team needed it most last season, and we look for him to kick it up a notch this spring. He’s capable of being that spark we need at the top of our lineup, and we look for him to solidify the job in center field.”

Cohen has started in right field the past two seasons and brings a wealth of experience and maturity to the position. An All-Pac-10 Co-Newcomer of the Year selection in 2007, Cohen looks to rebound this spring after batting .204 as a sophomore in 2008. Cohen played in 41 games one year ago, posting respectable power numbers – nine home runs and 29 RBI – and spent a portion of the summer playing for the Chatham A’s in the prestigious Cape Cod League.

“Gabe has shown that he can be a frontline player on this team,” Savage said. “He has his confidence back and has improved his approach at the plate, allowing him to move on to that next pitch or next at-bat. Coach Vanderhook and Coach Pearse have been really good for him, in terms of pitch recognition and of knowing what to look for in certain situations. He can be a tremendous hitter when he has all his confidence.”

The depth of UCLA’s outfield extends beyond the unit’s three most veteran players. Junior Dustin Quist, sophomores Raul Duran, Giovinazzo and Brett Krill and freshman Marc Navarro will push for playing time in 2009. Duran played in 25 games one year ago, primarily as a late-inning defensive replacement. The former standout at Saddleback High School possesses the team’s best outfield arm and has shown some power at the plate, belting his first collegiate homer in an 11-4 win at Oregon State last spring.

Quist has played primarily in a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner role, making 15 appearances the last two seasons. Giovinazzo started in each outfield position last spring, and Krill saw playing time in 10 contests. Krill, a 2006 AFLAC All-America selection and eventual 46th-round draft selection by the Atlanta Braves in 2007, had a strong summer playing for the Mankato Moondogs in the Northwoods League. He batted .274 with one home run, five doubles and 10 RBI for Mankato. Navarro redshirted in 2008 and spent the summer playing for the Oahu Paddlers of the Hawaii Collegiate Baseball League.

“Our outfield is very similar to our pitching staff, in that those players have a ton of experience and provide great depth,” Savage said. “Brett Krill has really come on strong for us, and guys like Raul Duran and Dustin Quist have emerged as solid outfielders.”

SCHEDULE

UCLA has played some of the strongest schedules in the nation the last three seasons, but the Bruins’ 2009 slate may be the most challenging yet. Following a three-game series at home against 2008 Palo Alto Regional contender UC Davis to open the season (Feb. 20-22), UCLA will play three consecutive weekends outside of the Pacific time zone.

The Bruins have welcomed the opportunity to play in the nation’s premier in-season tournament – the annual Houston College Classic, played Feb. 27-March 1 at Minute Maid Park (home to MLB’s Houston Astros). UCLA squares off under the lights on a marquee Friday night matchup versus Rice (7 p.m. CT) before facing Big 12 Conference power Baylor on Saturday (3:30 p.m. CT) and local rival UC Irvine on Sunday (11 a.m. CT).

The following two weekends feature three-game series at Oklahoma (March 6-8) and at East Carolina (March 11-13). UCLA and Oklahoma split two games on a rain-shortened opening weekend in Los Angeles last February, and the Bruins swept East Carolina early in the 2007 season at Jackie Robinson Stadium. Both Oklahoma and East Carolina have established a winning pedigree that has translated to numerous NCAA postseason berths.

Weekends at Midwestern and Southern Atlantic destinations are sandwiched with midweek contests against the likes of Big West competitors UC Riverside and UC Santa Barbara, perennial West Coast Conference power Pepperdine and Mountain West Conference foe San Diego State.

UCLA’s true Pac-10 slate this season incorporates nine teams – Oregon reinstated baseball after dropping the sport following the 1981 season. The Bruins begin Pac-10 play at USC (March 21-23), opening a three-game set at Dedeaux Field the Saturday after winter quarter finals week. In the span of one month (Feb. 26 – March 26), UCLA will play just four games at home.

The Bruins’ Pac-10 schedule features home series versus 2008 Super Regional participant Arizona (March 27-29), Washington (April 17-19), Oregon State (24-26) and 2008 Long Beach Regional competitor California (May 8-10). UCLA will travel to Washington State (April 3-5), 2008 College World Series participant Stanford (April 9-11), and Oregon (May 1-3) before concluding its season with three games at two-time defending Pac-10 Champion Arizona State (May 23-25).

Along the way, UCLA’s non-conference slated is lined with midweek games against the likes of UC Irvine, Long Beach State and Cal State Bakersfield. The Bruins play a three-game series against 2008 Super Regional competitor Cal State Fullerton, with the series opener (May 15) at Fullerton’s Goodwin Field. UCLA concludes its home schedule with consecutive games that weekend against the Titans (May 16-17) at Jackie Robinson Stadium.

In all, UCLA’s schedule is lined with 51 of its 56 games against teams either ranked in or receiving votes in Collegiate Baseball’s preseason poll. Additionally, the schedule features a combined 24 of 56 ballgames against teams ranked in Baseball America’s preseason top-25 poll. The Bruins, who open the year ranked No. 12 by Baseball America, will face No. 7 Rice, No. 8 Baylor and No. 9 UC Irvine in order at the Houston College Classic during the season’s second full weekend.

“We believe we have the most competitive schedule in the country,” Savage said. “It would be hard to argue otherwise. You factor in four challenging non-conference series to open the season – three of which are out of our region – in addition to playing three games against UC Irvine and three against Cal State Fullerton. And when you factor in nine Pac-10 series, five of which take place on the road, we know that we’ll have to play at a very high level to achieve our goals.”