UCLA Baseball: 2021 Season Preview and Series Preview vs. San Francisco
The highly-ranked Bruins are loaded, coming off a 13-2 campaign in 2020 that was drastically shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
After having its promising 2020 season cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UCLA baseball team will finally take the field again today to open its 2021 campaign, opening the season with a home series versus the University of San Francisco Dons. First pitch tonight is at 5:00 pm PT at Jackie Robinson Stadium. This is your preview of the ’20-21 Bruins squad as well as for the weekend series hosting USF.
After UCLA went 13-2 in the pandemic-shortened season and having retained most of its players, the Bruins are highly-ranked in 2021. Baseball America, USA Today, NCBWA, and D1Baseball.com all have UCLA ranked #2 in the nation behind the Florida Gators. Collegiate Baseball has the Bruins at #3, behind Florida and Vanderbilt. In the Pac-12 Baseball Preseason Coaches’ poll, UCLA received all of the available first place votes, unanimously selected to win the conference.
Making the College World Series is not an unrealistic expectation for this team as long as it gets played this year.
UCLA Head Coach John Savage returns to Westwood for his seventeenth season. Coach Savage has a career record of 552-362-1 while helming the Bruins and he has guided UCLA to the postseason in eleven out of fifteen years (there was no postseason in 2020). Coach Savage is 42-33 in those postseason games and his 42 postseason victories are more than any other coach in UCLA program history.
Personally, for me, after Coach Val left UCLA Gymnastics, Coach Savage was next in line as the existing UCLA coach that best exemplifies the principles espoused by Coach Wooden.
The Bruins return eight starting field players from 2020, all three weekend starting pitchers, last year’s midweek starting pitcher, and most of the bullpen.
And that does not even count the incoming freshman class. If it sounds like UCLA has an embarrassment of riches, well, it does.
The one starting field player who has moved on was arguably the Bruins best player: outfielder Garrett Mitchell, who was drafted in the first round of the MLB Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. Mitchell was truly a “five tool” player as he hits for average, hits for power, runs very well, has an amazing arm, and wields a slick glove. UCLA will miss him.
The other key player who will not be returning for UCLA is closer Holden Powell. Powell had 17 saves in 2019 and three saves last year in the fifteen-game season when the Bruins rarely needed Powell because their victories were usually by very large margins.
UCLA returns all of its weekend starters as well as its midweek starter from last season. I expect the rotation (at least for the weekend) to be the same as last season. As the following list shows, with accompanying 2020 statistics, UCLA is loaded:
Friday starter: Zach Pettway (3-0, 1.05 ERA, 25.2 IP, 13 H, 29 SO, one BB)
Saturday Starter: Nick Nastrini (2-1, 4.60 ERA, 15.2 IP, 12 H, 19 SO, 10 BB)
Sunday Starter: Jesse Bergin (4-0, 1.27 ERA, 21.1 IP, 13 H, 27 SO, 7 BB)
All three starters were excellent, although Nastrini’s numbers are skewed by a tough performance versus a very good TCU team, which tagged him for four earned runs in two innings, and resulted in one of UCLA’s two losses in 2020.
Jared Karros was UCLA’s midweek starter last season, going 2-0 in three starts, with an ERA of 3.80. It remains to be seen if Karros remains the midweek starter or moves elsewhere within the UCLA pitching staff in 2021.
Note: Since I wrote this portion of the article, UCLA has since released its Game Notes for the weekend series. Rather than erase what I had a written, I wanted to keep my original thoughts published, which turned out to be wrong. In the Game Notes, Pettway is not listed as a starting pitcher for any game this weekend. The sophomore, Karros, son of UCLA and Dodger legend Eric Karros, gets the coveted “ace” Friday start tonight. Nastrini and Bergin swap the Saturday and Sunday slots, at least for this weekend. I can only speculate that Pettway must be dinged up.
The loss of Powell hurts, but UCLA returns most of the other key pieces of the bullpen in 2021. Last year’s set up man, righty Kyle Mora, returns for his senior season, as do right-handers Sean Mullen and Michael Townsend. Mora and Mullen both had ERAs under 1.00 last year (allowing one run each in 9.1 and 9.2 innings, respectively). Townsend did not allow a run in 12 innings pitched.
UCLA also has a slew of talented arms in the freshman class. Keep an eye on right-handers Max Rajcic and Jake Brooks who could see time in the bullpen or who could slot into the midweek starter’s position.
The big question is: who will be the closer? Any one of the three mentioned bullpen returnees could fill that role, or perhaps Coach Savage looks to Jared Karros as an option as the season moves on. Obviously, he won’t be able to close tonight since he’s starting. Maybe one of the incoming freshman? No matter of what, UCLA’s tradition of great pitching looks to continue in 2021.
UCLA’s entire starting infield will return for 2021. It all begins with Preseason First Team All American junior shortstop Matt McLain. After an up-and-down freshman season playing mostly out-of-position in center field, McLain came into his own in his sophomore season. After moving to his natural shortshop position, McLain responded in the field and at the plate, hitting .398 and driving in 19 runs in 15 games. He will be a fixture at shortstop in 2021.
Despite having a tough year at the plate in the shortened 2020 season, hitting .237 in eleven games, catcher Noah Cardenas led the team in hitting as a freshman, with a .375 batting average. That’s the Noah Cardenas I want to see in 2021. He’ll be behind the plate most games, although highly-regarded freshman Darius Perry could see time there too, partly due to his defensive skills.
JT Schwartz will start at first base. The big switch hitter batted .328 last year with 8 RBI. Slotting in a third base could be steady junior Jake Moberg, who hit .265 as a sophomore. He will be pushed by another Karros, freshman Kyle, brother of Jared and son of Eric. Third base could be a battle this season.
UCLA has options at second base. Sophomore Mikey Perez hit .333 last season and has reportedly made even greater strides in the off-season. Kevin Kendall, who played shortstop his freshman year and was supposed to play second base last year before an injury robbed him of his 2020 season, could see a move to center field to shore up the position vacated by Mitchell. Or he could play second base. Or both depending on the game, as UCLA also has plentiful options in the outfield.
Senior Kyle Cuellar has had an up-and-down career with the Bruins, but the pandemic-shortened season might have hurt him the most. The switch-hitter had a fine freshman season, hitting .319, but his numbers plummeted in his sophomore and junior seasons. Cuellar seemed to have bounced back, hitting .341 through 13 games last year. Now, effectively granted a second senior season in 2021, Cuellar will try to continue doing what he did at the plate in 2020. He will play some outfield and will also see time at designated hitter.
Other outfield options include sophomore Michael Curialle, who hit .325 in ten games as a freshman, redshirt senior Jarron Silva, who hit .276 last season, and redshirt freshman Emanuel Dean, who didn’t play last year but was the top-rated outfielder in California coming out of high school two years ago. Slugger Carson Yates, a freshman who also played quarterback in high school, could also see significant time in the outfield.
San Francisco Dons
USF has been a pretty good baseball team of late. The Dons went 9-8 in COVID-shortened 2020, and 30-26 in 2019. San Francisco, led by Head Coach Nino Giarratano, who has been in charge of the Dons since 1999, return 22 starters from last season’s squad.
Those 22 returning players include three of their top five hitters, outfielders Harris Williams (.378, 0 HR, 3 RBI), Jacob Munoz (.322, 0 HR, 11 RBI), and NickYovetich (.319, 3 HR, 10 RBI). Shortstop Jack Winkler, who led the team in RBI last season with 13, also returns to USF in 2021.
The Dons start a pair of graduate students as their Friday and Sunday starters, Landen Broussa and Grant Nechak, respectively, with sophomore Eric Reyzelman getting the Saturday start. All three are righties. So, expect to see a left-handed hitting lineup from Coach Savage this weekend.
Broussa started four games last season, going 1-1 with a 1.38 ERA. He had a great 2018 season before missing all of 2019 due to injury and most of 2020 due to the pandemic. He is 9-5 with a 2.98 ERA for his college career. Reyzelman started three games in 2020, winning two, and Nechak got a no-decision in his only start last season. Outside of Broussa, USF does not have a ton of experience with its starting pitchers.
After playing UCLA, San Francisco plays nine games in the Bay Area, four against UC Berkeley, one against Fresno State, and four against Stanford.
I predict that, at a minimum, UCLA wins this series. Frankly, anything other than a series win at home would be a major disappointment and would result in the Bruins falling in the polls. I do not expect that to happen.
But I am not sure that UCLA will win win all three games either. I feel good about Saturday and Sunday. The Friday situation, with Jared Karros in his first Friday start versus Broussa, who has logged 99 and 2/3 innings of college ball, intrigues me and also worries me some.
We will see. Finally though, it is time to . . . PLAY BALL!!!
#2 UCLA Baseball (0-0-0)
Opponent: University of San Francisco Dons (0-0)
Game Time: 5:00 pm PT, Friday, February 19, 2021
Where: Jackie Robinson Stadium, Los Angeles, CA
Projected Pitching Matchups:
Friday, Feb. 19 - 5:00 pm PT
UCLA - Jared Karros, RHP, So. (2020: 2-0, 3.86 ERA)
USF - Landen Bourassa, RHP, Gr. (2020: 1-1, 1.38 ERA)
Saturday, Mar. 7 - 2:00 pm PT
UCLA - Jesse Bergin, RHP, Jr. (2020: 4-0, 1.27 ERA)
USF - Eric Reyzelman, RHP, So. (2020: 2-1, 4.70 ERA)
Sunday, Mar. 8 - 3:00 pm PT
UCLA - Nick Nastrini, RHP, Jr. (2020: 2-1, 4.60 ERA)
USF - Grant Nechak, RHP, Gr. (2020: 0-0, 2.88 ERA)
This is your UCLA v. San Francisco game one open thread.