John Savage knows UCLA’s uniforms come with a big target on the back this season.
That’s what happens when you win a national championship.
“We’re going to get everyone’s best punch,” Savage said.
The Bruins are starting the baseball season in a position that Savage could only dream about when he took over the program in 2005. Before his arrival, UCLA had made trips to the College World Series twice. The Bruins had won a half-dozen conference championships but hardly were in the conversation of the best programs on the West Coast.
UCLA won just 15 games and lost 16 in a row in Savage’s first season.
“It was hard to believe where we were that first season, but I knew that we were here for a reason,” Savage said. “But the two words I had always heard when people talked about UCLA was sleeping giant.
“UCLA had very little presence in Omaha. When people talked about the teams from our league with an Omaha presence, it was USC and Arizona State and Oregon State and Arizona and Stanford. UCLA wasn’t one of those teams, but I felt very strongly that we could do it. It was just going to take time and patience.”
Savage got the Bruins to the NCAA tournament in his second season. They made it to Omaha in his sixth, when a pitching staff led by Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer helped propel UCLA to the championship series.
South Carolina won the title that season. After missing a return trip to Omaha in 2011, UCLA got to TD Ameritrade Park in 2012 and left there in 2013 with the championship trophy.
“When we landed Bauer and Cole, those guys really changed the dynamic of the program,” Savage said. “And when you look at the recent history of college baseball, I certainly think you can say we’ve had an Omaha presence.”
As it starts the season, UCLA has its sights set on getting back to Omaha to defend its title. It is a journey that will be made without several key players from its championship team.
The Bruins no longer have Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig anchoring the lineup. Slick-fielding shortstop Pat Valaika, the Pac-12’s defensive player of the year, also is gone.
But UCLA’s roster is stocked with proven champions. Six regulars return from last season and three other players who made significant contributions also are back.
Obviously, filling the spots in the rotation held by Plutko, the CWS most valuable player, and Vander Tuig, who shared the national lead for wins (14) last season, are a top priority.
“We’re replacing two significant arms,” Savage said.
James Kaprielian, who pitched out of the bullpen as a freshman, gets first crack at taking over for Plutko in the No. 1 spot in the rotation. Vander Tuig’s spot goes to junior Grant Watson, who has won 18 games the past two seasons. Sophomore Cody Poteet will move into Watson’s Sunday spot in the rotation.
“Those guys have big shoes to fill,” Savage said. “They lack the experience of an Adam or Nick, but they are very talented guys and they were on a national championship team.
“James and Grant saw firsthand how Adam and Nick went about their business. They saw how they reacted and dealt with situations on and off the mound. They know what kind of teammates those two guys were and how they bounced back from a bad outing.”
And they know they have David Berg at the back end to finish what they start. The side-arming Berg set an NCAA record for saves (24) last season while tying the mark for appearances (50). His durability — he’s appeared in 101 games the past two seasons — and poise are unmatched.
UCLA finished last season ranked 259th in the nation in batting average (.250) and 211th in runs scored (4.7 per game), but no team was as proficient by the end of the season in doing whatever was needed to get runners on, over and in.
Outfielder Eric Filia is the Bruins’ top returning hitter after batting .281 with 33 RBIs as a sophomore. Kevin Kramer, who moves from third base to take over for Valaika at shortstop, is UCLA’s top returning producer as he drove in 42 runs, hit three homers and batted .278.
Savage has high hopes for freshman outfielder Brett Stephens, who starred in both football and baseball in high school.
“He’s going to be a special, special hitter,” Savage said.
One of the things Savage likes about this team is how it’s gone about its business during fall practice and preseason drills. There hasn’t been a lot of talk about repeating.
“We don’t talk about getting back to Omaha every day,” he said. “Our goal is to go out and get better every day.
“As a group, they’ve dealt with being the champion well. They’re not wide-eyed and afraid of the challenge. It’s their turn and it’s their time. They’ve embraced that.”