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Last year, the UCLA Bruins spent 12 weeks at the No. 1 position in the polls before being stunned by Michigan in the Super Regionals, which prevented them from making what many thought would be a sure-fire trip to Omaha.
To make things worse, the Bruins also lost 13 players to the MLB Draft in June — more than any other program in the nation.
So Bruin fans should be in a state of utter despair and take to burning couches on the streets, right?
Well, to borrow a popular phrase: Not so fast my friend.
John Savage and his staff have recruited at the highest level in college baseball in recent years, so reloading for another year’s pursuit of championship rings is no big deal anymore. With that in mind, here are the five main reasons the Bruins won’t have much of a hiccup this season.
1. UCLA will benefit from the return of elite starting pitching.
John Savage is one of the best pure pitching instructors in our sport, college or pro.
Though he loses Ryan Garcia and Jack Ralston from the weekend rotation, Jesse Bergin (5-0, 4.43) is a returning freshman All-American. Perhaps more importantly, junior-to-be Zach Pettway (2-2, 4.56) is back to 100 percent after missing the last half of 2019 with an injury.
Also back in the fold will be Nick Nastrini (1-0, 1.37), who missed most of last season but returned in time to give the Bruins a huge boost in the post-season.
2. The Bruins' bullpen is nails.
The Bruins team ERA was 2.90 last year and six of the top seven relievers return, led by National Stopper of the Year Holden Powell (4-3, 1.84, 17 saves).
Of the six returnees, five of them had a ridiculous era of 2.09 or lower. That’s some high-quality stuff. If form holds, any lead after six innings is pretty much a lock-down win for the Boys of Westwood.
3. UCLA may have the top returning position player in the country.
Most of the projections for the 2020 Major League Draft have centerfielder Garrett Mitchell somewhere in the top 10 of the every mock draft out there.
Mitchell hit .349 last season with a Pac 12-leading 12 triples and 18 stolen bases. He is drawing comparisons to former Bruin firestarter Eric Byrnes with his speed and ability to cover a large amount of the meadow from his position in centerfield.
At the very least, he could be the top leadoff hitter in the country.
4. The M*A*S*H unit has emptied.
Despite the lofty ranking they held most of last season, the Bruins still had to deal with a good number of injuries.
In addition to Zach Pettway’s return from a crushing forearm injury, a couple other high-potential players will return this year and should shine.
Backup catcher Will McInerny only played in 23 games last year, hitting just .205, but he has made 52 starts previous to this year and could be the DH this season if he is back to 100 percent.
Outfielder Kyle Cuellar hit just .174 in 23 at-bats but he was also a freshman All-American in 2017 when he hit a team-best .319.
Jake Moberg battled some bumps and bruises as a freshman last year, getting just 14 at-bats. But he is a former Colorado Rockies draft pick out of high school and is in the mix for the starting nod at third base.
Finally, sophomore right-hander Sean Mullen only threw six innings last year but this past summer he pitched in the prestigious Cape Cod League and was consistently hitting 92-94 with his speedball.
Mullen could be up for one of the weekend rotation spots, helping to solidify things on Sundays.
5. The newbies will shine.
Depending on which recruiting service you adhere to, the Bruins had either the No. 5 ranked incoming class or the No. 19 incoming class. Either way, Coach Savage told me in the fall, “It’s not a big class but it’s a strong class. We feel like all of them are potential future professionals.”
That’s some heady praise from a man who knows a thing or two about talent on the diamond.
The headliners are right-hander Jared Karros (yes the son of that Karros) and southpaws Josh Hahn and Jake Saum, who are both Area Code Game alums and were both ranked among the top 50 players in the country coming out of high school.
Two position players were drafted last June in infielder Michael Curialle and catcher Darius Perry, who should both play vital roles this spring.