UCLA's John Savage Discusses 2008 Season, Program's Future
July 23, 2008
UCLA baseball head coach John Savage helped lead the Bruins to their third consecutive NCAA Tournament, marking the first time the UCLA baseball program accomplished that feat. UCLA registered a 33-27 overall record and a third-place Pac-10 finish (13-11 conference mark). The Bruins will kick off their 2009 campaign with a three-game series against UC Davis, beginning Friday, Feb. 20 at Jackie Robinson Stadium.
Q: After having advanced to three consecutive NCAA Regionals - including one Super Regional berth in 2007 - give us your assessment of not only the 2008 season, but also the future of this baseball program.
A: We began the 2008 season ranked in the top five in several preseason polls. We didn't start the season as well as we would have liked, but you have to give our players a lot of credit for playing well in conference play. We put ourselves in a position to finish in the upper echelon of the conference for three years in a row. Our goals were to win the Pac-10 Conference and the national championship. But at the end of the day, that group of players really established themselves at UCLA. They became the first group of Bruins to advance to Regionals for three seasons in a row. That was certainly a big bright spot from the 2008 season. We hope to build off of what we did the last three years and go from there.
Q: What were among the most pleasant surprises of the 2008 campaign?
A: Casey Haerther had an exceptional year, hitting 23 doubles and 12 home runs, and he played exceptional first base. He really grew up as a Pac-10 player last season. In terms of the younger players, he was certainly one of the guys who had an outstanding year. Alden Carrithers was one of the best hitters in the country from day one. He was the toughest out in the conference. He had 84 hits and more walks than strikeouts, a high on-base percentage and played exceptional defense. Offensively, Alden and Casey had the best years. On the pitching side, Tim Murphy had a terrific year. He led the conference with 111 strikeouts and threw over 100 innings.
Q: Talk a little bit more about Tim Murphy, a highly-regarded two-way player in high school who did not begin pitching at the collegiate level until midway through his sophomore season. What impressed you most about Tim?
A: When he came here as a freshman in 2006, we already had a solid starting rotation with David Huff, Hector Ambriz and Tyson Brummett. Those guys never missed a start all season. Tim really came in here as a position player and pitcher. He developed into a very good, solid pitcher, during his sophomore year. He emerged in the weekend rotation midway through the year and helped us get to a great start in Pac-10 play. He really gave us what we needed on Saturdays, and I think he carried that over into this season. He had some tough luck with wins and losses, but his ERA was very good for a Friday night starter. He stepped up down the stretch for us and into Regionals. He really grew up, both on and off the field. I'm really proud of his accomplishments at UCLA. From where he was coming out of high school to where he was when he left, you have to say that the program did him well and he did the program well. It's always a two-way street. Hopefully, he'll be able to pitch for a long time at the major league level and build off his success at UCLA.
A: Jermaine was a great player in our program for three seasons. His energy and enthusiasm that he brought to the ballpark would make any coach want to have him on their team. You're talking about a guy that hit over .300 three straight years, that performed exceptionally well in the Pac-10 conference and that helped us turn around our season in 2007. Jermaine's passion and love for the game will always be remembered at Jackie Robinson Stadium. We think Jermaine will be a very good pro because he is very consistent and knows how to play the game. We're looking forward to following his progression through minor league baseball, up to the big leagues.
Q: If you had to name three reasons for fans to be excited in 2009, which would you choose?
A: Our pitching staff is as good as any in the country. We bring back two talented seniors in Brendan Lafferty and Jason Novak. We have several exceptional juniors in Charles Brewer, who won nine games, and Gavin Brooks, who looks to rebound off his sophomore season, and Matt Drummond. We bring back sophomores Dan Klein, Matt Grace and Rob Rasmussen. Erik Goeddel missed last season recovering from an injury and looks to be healthy this fall. Right now, we're holding onto Gerrit Cole, a first-round draft pick by the Yankees. This could be an electric staff, both right and left-handed. We're also very excited about our offense. With the return of Casey Haerther, Gabe Cohen and Cody Decker, and the possibility of Brandon Crawford coming back, you're talking about a very explosive lineup. With Jeff Rapoport, Blair Dunlap, Justin Uribe and the newcomers, our offense can be really good. Our outfield is going to be exceptionally deep with guys such as Blair Dunlap, Brett Krill, Justin Uribe and Gabe Cohen. We think that they are an experienced group who can be very good defensively. Those three reasons -the depth of our pitching staff, the potential for our offense and the strength of our outfielders - give us a lot of excitement heading into the 2009 season.
A: Steve is an old-school, very hard-nosed, experienced coach. He was an All-America selection at Fresno State. His father was a Hall of Fame coach at Laney Junior College in northern California. This guy has been brought up to be a player and a coach. And that's what he knows best. He has a strong grasp on player development. He's a very good teacher, he knows how to communicate and get his point across, and he's a really good coach. Our players are really excited to work with him. And I know that Steve is very excited to be at UCLA.
Q: How will Rick Vanderhook, a highly-respected hitting coach, fit into this baseball program?
A: Rick was one of those untouchable assistants for a really long time. He had been an assistant coach at Cal State Fullerton for 21 years. In that time, he coached numerous All-Americans and major leaguers. He made 10 trips to Omaha. There's really no better resume in the country when you're looking at assistant coaches. When you're looking at who he's developed, how much they've won, who he's coached under - coach Augie Garrido and coach George Horton - he's as experienced an assistant coach as you will find. We feel very fortunate to be able to hire an assistant coach like that. He wanted to stay in southern California and go to a program that has a legitimate chance of advancing to Omaha. We feel that he is a great addition in all phases. I know the players are very excited to be able to work with a guy that has such a remarkable record, history and resume. With Rick, Steve and P.C. Shaw on board, we feel that our staff is very experienced.
A: Again, Casey had a tremendous sophomore year, leading the team in doubles, home runs and RBI. He could be moved from first base to third base - we're still looking at that. We think that Gabe and Cody are two guys who will rebound from last season and do what they've done in the past. Gabe had an unbelievable freshman season, and Cody had two very, very good years as a freshman and sophomore. They know that they didn't have as good of years as they'd hoped. But they're very mature players with a ton of energy. They have that fire to get back at it and be the player that they know they can be. There is a lot of reason to believe that our offense will be very good.
A: Chris Amezquita was an AFLAC All-American, who missed most of his senior year with an injury. He's a great talent and is a very offensive player. We feel very fortunate to have him as part of our recruiting class. He's a potential left-side infielder - shortstop or third baseman. He can come in and hit right away at our level. Tyler Rahmatulla is another All-American who was awarded the best defensive player award at the Area Code Games, which is a very high accomplishment. He was a first-team All-Orange County selection in addition to being named an EA Sports All-American. Tyler had an unbelievable career at Mater Dei and is a very accomplished player both offensively and defensively.
Q: Aside from losing Tim Murphy to the draft, your program is slated to return every pitcher. Who do you expect to step up as potential starters?
A: It's going to be as competitive a pitching staff as I've ever been around, from top to bottom. You're talking about talented guys like Charles Brewer, Gavin Brooks, Rob Rasmussen, Gerrit Cole and Brendan Lafferty. There is a lot of experience on this staff. It will filter down, to where we have a lot of guys who will be in roles in which they can be at their best. From starting pitching to long relief to short relief to closing, we have a ton of options. If we stay healthy, which we anticipate that we will, it will be a very good year on the mound for the Bruins. Brendan Lafferty has earned the opportunity to be in that rotation. He grew up last season with a remarkable season. He was the most valuable pitcher on our team last season, leading the team in appearances. This summer, he's pitching very effectively in the Northwoods League - he has really taken off. Brendan is a left-hander who throws 88-92 with a very good breaking ball and a changeup that has always been great. We really think that he is primed for a great senior season.
Q: As you've mentioned, the Bruins' bullpen remains strong. How encouraged are you by the depth of your relief pitchers?
A: We are very encouraged. If everybody comes back healthy and we have everybody in the right frame of mind and guys are pitching up to their potential, we can be effective in all phases - as a starting group and in relief. Then it turns into the middle and late innings. Right now, we think we have a bunch of potential closers. The four starters that come out of that group are going to be very good.
A: Ryan has been our anchor - he had a remarkable career at UCLA, catching three great pitching staffs the last three seasons. He led our program to three postseason appearances. Brent Dean had a stellar senior season. Both of those guys are going to be missed a ton - from their leadership skills to their toughness to their ability to throw people out. That tandem last season was as good as there was out there. We feel confident that there are guys on the roster who can fill those needs - Chris Giovinazzo, Cody Decker, Gino Aielli and incomer Steven Rodriguez. Those are guys who can step in and hold that down. It could be two catchers, but we don't know who is going to be the everyday starter right now. That is a void, other than Tim Murphy on the pitching and catching landscape, that needs to be looked at. It's going to be competitive between when these guys return to campus in the fall and Opening Day.
Q: Next season, Oregon will resume its baseball program (dropped since 1981), creating a true Pac-10. Aside from that trip to play the Ducks, what can you tell fans about the 2009 schedule?
A: We have been very proud of our schedules since day one at UCLA. We feel like we've played the toughest schedule in the country each season, and that has really helped us in Pac-10 play. Everybody strives to win 40 games, and we want to get past that 40-win plateau every year. But I don't think there are many teams in the country that play our caliber of schedule. Our schedule has helped us build the program into what it is. That freshman group in 2006 played the toughest schedule in the country, and they won. Look how much they have improved and helped this program get to where it is. We have won 33 games three years in a row, and we would like to improve on that. But you also have to look at who you are playing against and where you are playing them. We want to be the school that plays the best teams both nationally and locally. Scheduling is a big part of our program, and travelling to difficult spots and doing well at those spots is very important. We feel that we have made our mark with tough schedules. We've been a number-two seed the last three years, but we want to be a number-one seed and we want to host.
So, looking at our 2009 schedule, the road portion is the toughest in the nation. Playing at the Houston College Classic on that second weekend of the season, our players are very excited to go up against Rice, Houston, Baylor and Texas A&M. After that, we play consecutive weekends at Oklahoma and East Carolina before opening Pac-10 play at USC. Other Pac-10 road trips include playing at Washington State, Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State. Those are some big challenges that we'll face next season. We do not want to play a soft schedule, and we don't believe in playing a soft schedule - I think the players will back everything I say about that. They want to play the best teams, and they want to play in the toughest environment. That's how you get better in baseball, and that's how you get better as a program. Our schedule next year will be one of the toughest in the nation, if not the toughest.
Q: Steele Field at Jackie Robinson Stadium has received several upgrades the past three seasons, including over 1,000 chairback seats, a state-of-the-art backstop net and a brand new natural grass field surface. What improvements are in the works this offseason?
A: We have quite a few things that we need to accomplish at Jackie Robinson Stadium. We're looking to install about 500 additional seats above the dugouts, replacing the grass slopes currently there, to get the capacity of the ballpark to around 1,700 seats. We're looking to build a new hitting facility - a state-of-the-art facility that will help our hitters. We need cages and space to be able to hit in. We would like to build a new clubhouse. The clubhouse, the hitting facility and the additional seats are a big priority for our program. Those would be the three biggest additions to Jackie Robinson Stadium that we feel can make it one of the nicest facilities in the nation. We have the best school, we have the best conference and we have the best schedule, so there are a lot of pieces in place. Our next move is to upgrade our facility to be one of the best in the country.