(Note: This article is
part of a series, by Jeff Dahn, that highlights specific collegiate baseball
programs going into the 2011 season. To
view the articles on other schools in this series please click here.)
It was back in 2001 when the University of California Irvine hired John Savage as head baseball coach and put him in charge of reigniting a dormant Anteater baseball program.
Savage spent his first year on the UC Irvine campus vigorously recruiting and assembled a team in time for the 2002 season. The Anteaters won 33 games in 2002 and UC Irvine had re-emerged on the college baseball radar screen (the school won a Division II national championship in 1974).
Savage led the UC Irvine to its first Division I postseason berth in 2004.
Having managed to sufficiently resurrect the program in Irvine, Savage took over as head coach at UCLA in 2005, where he replaced the retired Gary Adams.
UCLA had advanced to the postseason in 2004, as well, but lost a lot of talent from that team. Savage’s first UCLA team in 2005 finished 15-41 overall and just 4-20 in the mighty Pacific-10 Conference.
He was in for another uphill climb.
“I hate to use the word ‘redo’ … it was more kind of ‘rebuild’ (where you) put your own stamp on it, your own mentality, your own approach and your own players,” Savage said in a recent telephone interview from his UCLA office. “So it was challenging. ’05 was probably my most challenging year I’ve ever had as a coach. It was tougher than starting up a program, like at Irvine.”
But Savage quickly righted the ship. UCLA has been to the NCAA postseason four of the past five years, missing out only in 2009. And last season, the Bruins made it all the way to the championship series of the College World Series, where they were beaten twice by South Carolina.
The experience of making it to the CWS and finishing as national runner-up changed things ever so subtly as the 2010 fall session got under way.
“That was a major step we had to take,” Savage said. “We got through Super Regionals and it was very relaxed in Omaha and we played very well.
“But it is different – the bar’s been raised. The guys know the expectations now are higher (because of) last season.”
The 2011 Bruins are shaping up to be a certain top-five ballclub when the first college rankings are released. They are led by the return of junior right-handers Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, who were instrumental in leading the team to a 51-17 record last season, including a 22-0 start.
Bauer was 12-3 with 3.02 ERA in 18 starts and Cole went 11-4 with 3.37 ERA in 19 starts. Perfect Game projects Cole as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 Draft, with Bauer also going in the 1stRound.
The Bruins also return five of their top six hitters from last season, including sophomore outfielder Beau Amaral (.354, 41 runs), junior infielder Dean Espy (.345, 9 HRs, 52 RBIs) and junior infielder Tyler Rahmatulla (.328, 7 HRs, 45 RBIs).
All of those players participated in Perfect Game tournaments or showcases while still in high school, and Cole was an Aflac All-American.
“We like our team and we like our players,” Savage said. “It’s a good group of young players … and we like our personnel. There’s some youth there – we only have two seniors – and hopefully they will build off of last year’s success and make another run at it.”
Savage welcomed another highly acclaimed freshman class to campus this fall, including right-handers Adam Plutko (Upland, Calif.), Zach Weiss (Irvine, Calif.) and Nick Vander Tuig (Oakdale, Calif.).
Plutko was No. 63 in Perfect Game’s national top prospects rankings for the class of 2010 and was drafted in the 6thround by the Phillies. Weiss was ranked No. 153 and taken in the 10thround by the Pirates and Vander Tuig was ranked No. 134 and selected in the 39thround by the Blue Jays.
Oufielder Brenton Allen was ranked No. 195 nationally by PG and was taken in the 9th round by the Phillies and infielder Kevin Williams was taken in the 41st round by the Dodgers.
Savage expects all of his freshmen to contribute in the spring.
“Certainly the pitchers for sure,” he said. “All three are healthy and all three are throwing the ball extremely well. They bring a lot to the table right away.”
UCLA has been home to a nationally prominent baseball program for many years but its resurgence in six years under Savage’s direction has certainly been noteworthy. The College World Series berth in 2010 was the program’s first since 1997.
“It’s taken time, you know,” Savage said. “I just completed my sixth year and we’ve had very good recruiting classes. The first year we got hired it was July and the ’05 season was very, very difficult. Our first class came-in in ’06 and we went to Regionals, and I think that was the first statement we made.
“Playing in the Pac-10 – we feel that from top-to-bottom it’s just the best conference in the country – it’s a very, very difficult league. It’s a grind.”
And not only do the Bruins play that rugged conference slate – eight of the 10 Pac-10 schools advanced to the postseason in 2010 – they also play traditional national powers like Cal State-Fullerton, UC-Irvine, Long Beach State and Pepperdine during the regular season.
Savage said the competition within his own team where many talented players battle for coveted spots, may be what sets his program apart from the country’s other top programs.
“With the depth of our roster now – you’re talking about a lot high-ranked players, from Perfect Game, the Area Codes and Aflac – a lot of high-level guys are turning down substantial money (after being drafted),” he said. “You’re talking about high-end players and a lot of drafts.”
UCLA consistently ranks among the schools that get the most players drafted every June. UCLA players have always been drafted as top-notch individuals – guys like Chris Chambliss, Eric Karros, Tim Leary, Jeff Conine and Chase Utley – but now they’re being drafted as members of a successful team.
Savage doesn’t need to resort to any hard-sell tactics when he tries to persuade a recruit to come the Westwood Village campus. He said the academic side the university offers is among UCLA’s strongest selling points when it comes to recruiting a potential player.
“It’s one of the best educations in the country,” he said. “You combine location, you combine weather, facilities, tradition, competition throughout the schedule from top to bottom – non-league and league, of course – there are just a lot of plusses.
“Getting a degree from UCLA and living the life of a student athlete at UCLA … is a real special moment in a young person’s life.”
Savage said one visit to the UCLA athletics hall of fame, with displays of all the national championships and the names of Major League ballplayers, NBA and NFL players and former Olympians pretty much says it all.
“It’s just a very historic, traditional athletic program located in Los Angeles, and it’s a very attractive place for a young player,” Savage said.
Facilities are another selling point. The Bruins’ baseball teams have called Steele Field at Jackie Robinson Stadium home for the past 30 years, and the facility has underwent significant ongoing renovations since 2006.
Now that the Bruins have reached the top, the challenge is to stay there and to try to take that one step they fell short of in 2010.
“We felt we had the team to make a serious run at it, but until you do it, no one knows it,” Savage said. “The bar’s been raised and now we hopefully take that next step – and the next step is winning the national championship game.
“You can go fast up and you can go fast down,” he continued. “You’ve got to stay on your toes and you’ve got to stay ahead of the curve in recruiting, and make sure that you have enough pitching to fight the fight. And now you’re back to 0-0. It’s a continuous journey and one I love going down.”
What follows is a list of players on UCLA’s 2010 fall roster who at some point while in high school participated in Perfect Game events. Click on the player’s name to view his PG profile.
Brenton Allen – PG National Showcase
Beau Amaral – PG Aflac Showcase
Trevor Bauer – PG WWBA
Mitchell Beacom – PG WWBA
Trevor Brown – PG WWBA/WC Top Prospect Showcase
Gerrit Cole – Alfac AA/PG National Showcase
Brian Carroll – PG WWBA/ PG BCS Tournaments
Pat Gallagher – PG WWBA
Jeff Gelalich – PG WWBA/PG National Showcase
Scott Griggs – Aflac AA/ PG National Showcase/ PG WWBA/PG BCS
Cody Keefer – PG WWBA
Adam Plutko– PG WWBA
Tyler Rahmatulla – PG WBBA
Cody Regis – PG WWBA
Jacob Shirley – PG WWBA/BCS Tournaments
Nick Vander Tuig – PG WWBA/ PG Aflac Showcase
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