UCLA Baseball Optimistic About Young Team in 2007

Jan. 29, 2007

After reaching the NCAA Malibu Regional last June, the 2007 UCLA baseball team has welcomed 13 newcomers and looks to build upon its recent success. Led by third-year head coach John Savage, the Bruins will face one of the country's most challenging schedules, highlighted by non-conference road trips to Miami and Mississippi.

Less than one year after flying under the radar to finish third in the Pac-10 Conference, the Bruins have caught the attention of many in the college baseball world. After having inked the fifth-ranked recruiting class in 2005 (as rated by Baseball America), the UCLA coaching staff landed the No. 13 class in 2006. A strong blend of experienced veterans and talented newcomers will prove vital to the Bruins' success this spring.

The 2006 squad helped lay the foundation and pave the way for consistent success. The Bruins were the only Pac-10 team to win each of its home series against Pac-10 opponents - series victories over Washington State, No. 10 Arizona State, USC and NCAA Super Regional finalist Stanford. UCLA finished its regular-season with an 8-11 record versus teams ranked in Baseball America's final top-25 poll. Only Oregon State played more games against such top-25 ranked ballclubs.

'We are very optimistic about our season,' Savage said. 'I think that we have questions to be answered on the mound. The major question being, how do you replace last year's aces - Dave Huff and Hector Ambriz? If we can do that, then I think that we look to have a successful season.'

Letterwinners Returning/Lost: 5/10
Starters Returning/Lost: 1/3

Savage understands the importance of a strong, deep pitching rotation, particularly after losing Huff (first-round selection) and Ambriz (fifth-round selection) to the 2006 MLB Draft. In 2007, the Bruins will look for senior Tyson Brummett to lead the way as the Friday night starter. Last season, the right-hander from Salem, Utah, posted a 4.52 ERA in 97.2 innings pitched.

'He anchored our Sunday spot last season and really did a terrific job,' Savage said. In addition to Brummett, UCLA welcomes the addition of Charles Brewer, a right-handed pitcher from Paradise Valley, Ariz., who compiled a 33-0 high school pitching record. Having led Chapparal High School to three consecutive state titles, the Bruins hope that Brewer can rise to the occasion in 2007.

'Charles has great command of three pitches,' Savage said. 'He never lost in high school and carries a winning demeanor and presence about him. We really look forward to watching him pitch this season.'The Bruins hope that junior right-hander Brant Rustich can return to full health in 2007 after having missed last season with a finger injury on his throwing hand. Slated as the team's closer this spring, Rustich provides added depth and talent to UCLA's bullpen.

'Brant's got a power arm and two great pitches - an outstanding fastball and a power slider,' Savage said. 'We are hoping for him to be our closer. He's healthy and should be 100 percent when we begin our season.'

UCLA returns seniors Kevin Brophy and Paul Schmidt and sophomore Jason Novak. Last season, Novak appeared in 23 games as a freshman (notching four starts) and logged 38.2 innings. Schmidt pitched in 11 games, recording six strikeouts and a 2.25 ERA. After redshirting the 2006 season, sophomore Brendan Lafferty will compete for playing time and may emerge as one of UCLA's regular starting pitchers. Savage also hopes to see one of several true freshmen emerge as either a starting pitcher or go-to guy out of the bullpen.

'Matt Drummond is a guy who has a tremendous future at UCLA,' Savage said. 'He throws four pitches for strikes and has great command of his secondary pitches.'

Letterwinners Returning/Lost: 2/1
Starters Returning/Lost: 1/0

Anchored by first-team All-Pac-10 selection Ryan Babineau, the Bruins have every reason to believe they will be successful not only in 2007, but also down the road. As a true freshman in 2006, Babineau started all but two of UCLA's regular-season contests (56) and did not commit an error in 445 chances (390 putouts, 55 assists). The Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., product posted a .258 batting average and hit .333 in UCLA's final 25 contests.

Aside from Babineau, UCLA welcomes junior Brent Dean, a transfer from Los Angeles Harbor JC, and returns redshirt junior Sam Ray. At L.A. Harbor, Dean earned All-South Coast Conference first-team honors after collecting a .276 batting average, three home runs and 28 RBI.

'We feel very good about our catching situation,' Savage said. 'We return a first-team All-Pac-10 performer in Ryan Babineau. We brought in Brent Dean, a very experienced junior college catcher who is a tough-minded catch-and-throw receiver. With Ryan, Brent and the veteran presence of Sam Ray, we feel that we're very deep.'

Letterwinners Returning/Lost: 5/3
Starters Returning/Lost: 3/1

Around the infield, UCLA features a strong combination of experience and depth. Senior Tim Stewart returns at first base after having registered a .301 batting average in his first season as a Bruin last spring. The former UC Irvine transfer started 36 games at first base in 2006 and provided several clutch hits for the Bruins one year ago.

'Tim is a very experienced and polished hitter who has played in two NCAA Regionals,' Savage said. 'He had success in the Pac-10 last year, and we hope that Tim builds off his experience.'

The Bruins welcome freshman Casey Haerther, who will compete for playing time as either a first baseman or designated hitter. The standout from nearby Chaminade High School (West Hills, Calif.) hit .554 as a senior and was selected by the San Diego Padres in the 34th round of the 2006 MLB Draft.

'Casey is a terrific hitter who led our team in offense over the fall,' Savage said. 'We look for him to be a big threat, possibly as the designated hitter, in the middle of our lineup.'

A third option at first base (or at designated hitter) could be Mickey Weisser, a transfer from Sierra Junior College in Northern California. Described by Coach Savage as a 'very accomplished hitter' and a 'very tough out,' Weisser led the Big-7 Conference last season with a .420 batting average and a .535 on-base percentage.

With the departure of last year's second baseman (Sean Smith, senior, drafted in 21st round), the Bruins welcome junior Alden Carrithers, a two-year standout at UC Santa Barbara. Last season, Carrithers started 53 of 54 games in the infield for the Gauchos and earned All-Big West second-team accolades. As a sophomore, he led UC Santa Barbara with a .465 on-base percentage.

'Alden is a very gifted player, defensively, as well as a left-handed offensive threat who can run,' Savage said. 'We also have Corey Ashner, who has really developed into a solid player after redshirting last season. He had a terrific fall.'

The left side of UCLA's infield proved to be a major strength in 2006 - both at the plate and on the diamond. Shortstop Brandon Crawford and third baseman Jermaine Curtis led the Bruins in multiple offensive categories, and Crawford was selected to play for the U.S. National Team over the summer. The Pleasanton, Calif., resident started at shortstop in all 58 games, recording a .318 average at the plate and superb defensive skills.

'Crawford is certainly a five tool player,' Savage said. 'He's got a great glove with a plus arm and great range. He proved all that last season. As a middle of the lineup hitter, he's a potent offensive threat who will be a catalyst for our team this season.'

Curtis led all UCLA regulars with a .336 batting average in 2006 and led all Bruin starters with a .473 on-base percentage (fourth in the Pac-10). The Fontana, Calif., product gained 10 pounds in the offseason and should continue to impress this spring.

'Jermaine was our best hitter, by average, and he's a very tough out,' Savage said. 'Over the summer and fall, he improved defensively and improved his strength. We hope to see Jermaine bring his game to a higher level in 2007.'

Letterwinners Returning/Lost: 5/3
Starters Returning/Lost: 1/2

Despite losing center fielder Josh Roenicke and right fielder Chris Jensen (both seniors, selected in the MLB Draft), the Bruins return a deep, talented and versatile outfield this spring. Led by veterans Tim Murphy and Blair Dunlap, both of which saw playing time as freshmen in 2006, the outfield positions should be one of UCLA's strengths.

Prior to getting hit by a pitch on the wrist on Feb. 14, 2006, versus UC Riverside, sophomore Tim Murphy showed immense potential. In his first game as a Bruin (season opener), he went 3-for-4 with three RBI, two runs scored and one home run. Murphy finished the series 6-for-10 with one double and one home run.

'I think everybody saw the promise that Tim had in the two opening series against Fresno State and Miami,' Savage said. 'We think that he is a legitimate left-handed power-hitting outfielder who can really throw. Tim had a great fall in the field and on the mound. Tim is a solid two-way player.'

Blair Dunlap started 26 games last season (20 in left field and six at designated hitter) and should begin the 2007 season as UCLA's starting center field. Dunlap recorded a .300 batting average in 100 at-bats as a true freshman and looks to build upon his promising first-year campaign.

'He's a great right-handed hitter who can run very well,' Savage said. 'We have quite a bit of versatility when you talk about Crawford, Carrithers and Dunlap - three guys who can all run very well.'

Freshman Gabe Cohen could vie for playing time this spring and looks to be in the Bruins' long-term plans. As a senior at El Camino Real High School, Cohen hit .341 and totaled eight doubles, four home runs and 30 RBI. Described by Coach Savage as a 'future guy for us,' Cohen displays tremendous bat speed at the plate.

Sophomore Cody Decker will move from the infield and designated hitter role to left field. In limited playing time last season, the Santa Monica High School product displayed tremendous power and will be a key offensive threat for UCLA. Decker spent the fall season adjusting to his new position and should become a force in the Bruins' potent batting lineup.

'Playing left field is a new position for him, but we feel comfortable that he can play in the outfield,' Savage said. 'He hit over .300 for us last year and has significant power.'

Along with Decker, Dunlap, Murphy and Cohen, other players who could see playing time in the outfield include freshman Jeff Rapoport and Weisser. Described by Savage as the fastest player on the team, Rapoport was a standout two-sport athlete (football and baseball) at Westlake High School who earned 2006 Louisville Slugger All-America honors and 2005 AFLAC All-America accolades.

'Jeff Rapoport is a tremendous athlete,' Savage said. 'He's very similar to Blair Dunlap when you talk about a skilled athlete who is right-handed.'

Home Games: 30
Road Games: 26

After having faced the toughest schedule in the nation last season (according to Boyd's World), the Bruins face an equally-challenging 56-game slate in 2007. Not only does UCLA travel to Miami (Coral Gables, Fla.) and Ole Miss (Oxford, Miss.), but the Bruins play on the road at Pac-10 foes Stanford, USC, Arizona State and Washington State.

'I don't think that anybody will have a tougher road schedule than we will have in 2007,' Savage said.

UCLA's 2007 schedule also features 25 games (against nine teams) which competed in the 2006 NCAA Regionals. Likewise, the Bruins will play 15 games against opponents which advanced to the 2006 NCAA Super Regionals (Miami, Cal State Fullerton, Mississippi, Stanford and Oregon State).

'Last year, we had the number-one schedule in the country,' Savage said. 'Our program really grew last season because of the schedule and how it prepared us for Pac-10 play. Everybody saw the benefits of playing a great schedule.'

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