Last season, UCLA went 30-27, got into the Long Beach Regional, and after two consecutive 3-2 defeats, including a 13-inning affair with San Diego State, were quickly eliminated, sending them back up the 405 to Westwood.
For a proud program like UCLA that won a national title as recently as 2013, that sounds like the type of season that would cause consternation, but that fails to frame the results of 2017 in their proper context.
With a boatload of young talent playing in a ton of big games for the Bruins, just getting into a regional was no guarantee. But those young players acclimated relatively quickly, played well, showed flashes of what they may become with a little more seasoning, and perhaps even supplied a pleasant surprise in terms of the end result.
In 2018, UCLA is in a different place altogether. They’ve now got an experienced bunch, both in terms of sheer number of games played and in postseason exposure, the latter of which can be a catalyst for growth from year to year. Those young players know what it takes not only to get to the postseason, but win in the postseason, and they know that, last year, they were just a handful of runs away from being in the driver’s seat in their regional.
Much of the precocious talent that learned on the job last year resides in the starting lineup, a group that could give the Bruins a more physical offense than we’re used to seeing from a program that traditionally builds around pitching and small ball.
Michael Toglia (.261/.382/.483, 8 HR), the top-ranked player on D1Baseball.com’s ranking of the top 2019 prospects in the Pac-12, is chief among them, but he’ll be joined by fellow sophomores Ryan Kreidler (.241/.327/.351, 4 HR), Chase Strumpf (.239/.315/.399, 7 HR), Kyle Cuellar (.319/.412/.425), Jeremy Ydens (.258/.347/.364), and Jack Stronach (.231/.318/.352). Junior Daniel Amaral (.282/.364/.330) is the grizzled veteran of the group, despite having played in only 30 or so more games in his career than most of the sophomores.
The pitching staff will certainly miss the presence of Griffin Canning, who capped off his UCLA career with a flourish in 2017, and losing Justin Hooper to injury was a tough blow, but they’ve got a solid mix of proven commodities and untapped potential to go around.
Junior Jon Olsen is certainly a proven piece, as he played an incredible second fiddle to Canning in the rotation last year, going 7-1 with a 2.86 ERA and a .201 opponent batting average in 85 innings over 15 starts. Senior Jake Bird is a versatile weapon to have as well. Over his career, he’s appeared in 55 games, 12 of them starts. Last season, in a swingman role where he started five games and came on in relief in 13 others, he had a 2.75 ERA and a .226 opponent batting average in 55.2 innings.
The key piece could very well be Kyle Molnar, who missed all of 2017 with injury after going 5-5 with a 3.32 ERA in 13 starts to earn Freshman All-American honors in 2016. A healthy, effective Molnar would go a long way toward setting the UCLA rotation up for success.
In the bullpen, there are a couple of experienced arms that the team will just simply need more from in 2018. One is junior Brian Gadsby, who was thought to be a possible heir apparent to David Berg when he got to campus, but hasn’t really been able to put it all together. He had a 4.54 ERA as a freshman to go along with five saves, and as a sophomore, his ERA rose to 5.09 and opponents hit .345 against him. He’s been durable in his two seasons, but he hasn’t yet been the shutdown arm at the back of the bullpen.
The other is Nick Scheidler, who led the team with 36 appearances in 2017, but had a 5.28 ERA. To be fair, many of Scheidler’s peripheral numbers suggest that his ERA doesn’t tell the whole story. He only issued ten walks in 30.2 innings and opponents hit .256 against him, so he wasn’t issuing a ton of free passes and it’s not as if opponents were squaring him up every time out. It’s safe to assume that some batted ball luck victimized Scheidler in 2017, which bodes well for his 2018 season.
This UCLA team isn’t one without questions marks. As much exciting talent as the lineup boasts, it’s not as if they were an incredibly dynamic group last season. And on the mound, they’re going to need some new faces and returning players to step up into bigger roles in order to have the type of pitching depth that it takes to make a deep run in the postseason.
But they’ll come into this season with much more known than they did last season, and last season ended with a regional appearance where they came up one run short twice. Long story short, expect much bigger things from UCLA in 2018.