A national title at UCLA would be the ultimate payoff for Matt McLain
After turning down a $2.6-million signing bonus from the Arizona Diamondbacks coming out of Irvine Beckman High to attend UCLA in 2018, Matt McLain was subjected to skepticism, even disbelief. What kind of 18-year-old declines that kind of life-changing bonus money?
“I never second-guessed my decision,” he said. “The best bet is to bet on yourself. I know my capability. I’m going to get better when I work on things. I wanted to win a national championship at UCLA.”
McLain, a 5-foot-11 shortstop, is on his way to proving his decision was right all long. In 13 games last season before it was halted because of the coronavirus shutdown, he was hitting .397. He’s put himself in position to be a first-round draft choice again this coming summer after going No. 25 in 2018 and most important to him, he’s part of a 2021 UCLA team that will start its season Friday ranked No. 2 in the nation behind Florida, according to Baseball America.
“I’m ready to go and I know our team is ready to go,” McLain said. “We’ve been itching to get this opportunity. We’re hungry.”
Said UCLA coach John Savage: “Matt is one of the most complete players in the country.”
Under NCAA rules because of the coronavirus, all players were given another year of eligibility if they wanted to return in 2021. UCLA has depth, experience and talent at all positions. About the only uncertainty is who will replace closer Holden Powell. The first opportunity goes to highly touted freshman Max Rajcic, one of the best pitchers in California during his days at Orange Lutheran.
Savage, who once had Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole in his starting rotation, has an impressive group of returning pitchers in starters Zach Pettway, Jared Karros, Jesse Bergin and Nick Nastrini, plus dependable reliever Kyle Mora.
McLain spent months during California stay-at-home orders last spring hanging out with his brothers, Sean, a baseball player at Arizona State, and Nick, a UCLA signee who plays for Beckman. His quarantine partners engaged in daily activities besides throwing and hitting.
“During quarantine time, there was more competition than any time else in our lives,” he said. “We would play Wiffle Ball with those crazy curveballs and try to strike out each other.”
There was football, basketball, video games and lots of golf. By summer, McLain returned to action on a summer team in Santa Barbara, the Foresters, that won a national championship in Kansas.
“Our aspirations are high,” McLain said of the Bruins, who open the season with three home games against San Francisco. “We want to win a national championship. We’ve been building since end of last year.”
A look at the other Division I schools in the Southland:
Coach: Ben Orloff, third year.
Top returnees: All-conference right-hander Trenton Denholm was on the Golden Spikes Award List before the 2020 season and had 13 scoreless innings in two home starts. The junior has been in the starting rotation since his freshman season.
Top newcomer: Outfielder Caden Kendle from Huntington Beach Marina has made an early positive impression with his bat.
Cal State Northridge
Coach: Dave Serrano, second year.
Top returnees: Center fielder Denzel Clarke is climbing on many draft boards and leads a veteran group of returnees. The Matadors’ Friday starting pitcher, Blake Sodersten, is another rising prospect.
Top newcomer: Bobby Silvis from Cypress College is ready to take over at shortstop.
UC Santa Barbara
Coach: Andrew Checketts, 10th season.
Top returnees: Pitching is the Gauchos’ strength. Left-hander Zach Torra was 3-0 in four starts with a 0.36 ERA last season. Left-hander Rodney Boone had a 2.53 ERA in 21 1/3 innings. Right-hander Michael McGreevy was 2-0 with a 0.99 ERA.
Top newcomer: Outfielder Broc Mortenson played two years of football at Cal Poly before returning to baseball. He’s a transfer from Ventura College and Cuesta College.
Coach: Jason Gill, second year.
Top returnees: Catcher Clay Owens had 17 RBIs and three home runs in 15 games last season. Infielder Ben Ramirez had 18 hits.
Top newcomer: Freshman catcher Garret Guillemette from Anaheim Servite is ready to provide help on defense and at the plate.
Coach: Gary Adcock, 18th year.
Top returnees: Outfielder Chad Castillo led the team in hitting with a .350 average and two home runs in 15 games. He’s 6 feet 3 with improving power.
Top newcomer: Freshman right-hander Ryan Delgado from Santa Maria Righetti will get the chance to make an immediate impact.
Coach: Nathan Choate, second year.
Top returnees: Infielder Alex Lambeau and pitcher CJ Fernandezees will be counted on for big seasons. Outfielder Dylan Hirsch is an offensive spark with his hustle and timely hits.
Top newcomer: Left-hander Diego Barrera, a transfer from Mt. San Antonio College, has strikeout skills.
Long Beach State
Coach: Eric Valenzuela, first year.
Top returnees: Valenzuela takes over the program with a great reputation for producing top pitchers, and Luis Ramirez (2-0, 2.73) should benefit. Also back is leading hitter Connor Kokx, who batted .400.
Top newcomer: Pitcher Deveraux Harrison (0.77 ERA) briefly got into action last season but should be ready to be effective in a closer’s role.
Coach: Rick Hirtensteiner, sixth year.
Top returnees: The Waves started 12-3 last season before it was halted. Infielder Aharon Modlin was batting .413 with 26 hits and Billy Cook had four home runs. Pitcher Chandler Cooper was 3-0 with a 1.00 ERA.
Top newcomer: Freshman infielder John Peck from Moorpark comes with good hitting skills.
Cal State Fullerton
Coach: Rick Vanderhook, 10th year.
Top returnees: Infielder Zach Lew leads the Titans after batting .339. Pitcher Tanner Bibee had 33 strikeouts in 29 2/3 innings.
Top newcomer: Pitcher Christian Rodriguez comes from Orange Lutheran with top credentials.
Coach: Justin Johnson, first year.
Top returning player: Pitcher Zach Jacobs had a 2.57 ERA in 28 innings.
Top newcomer: Anthony Mata is considered one of the best incoming freshmen in the Big West.
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