College baseball preview: UCLA aiming for Omaha trip while CSU Fullerton looks to bounce back
It’s a new era of Division I college baseball across the Southland. Four schools have new head coaches and two more coaches enter their second year at the Division I level. But one constant remains unchanged.
UCLA has been a consistent force under coach John Savage, making the NCAA tournament in 11 of his 15 seasons, including hosting an NCAA regional in six of the last 10 and winning the national championship in 2013. Savage faces one of his toughest challenges after finishing one win shy of his fourth trip to the College World Series last season. Thirteen Bruins were drafted from the Pac-12 championship team that set a school record with 52 wins.
“Our deal is the same. New team, same program is what we build on,” Savage said. “Even though we lost a lot, we feel very confident in our roster, the depth of it, the additions that we have from our freshman class.”
UCLA hopes to build around a strong core up the middle of the the field with catcher Noah Cardenas, center fielder Garrett Mitchell and Matt McLain, who moves to shortstop from the outfield. Junior Zach Pettway heads the pitching staff while sophomore Nick Nastrini (1-0, 1.37 ERA) moves into the weekend rotation after being lights out (28 strikeouts in 19 2/3 innings) in limited action last season.
“We have some really important parts that played a lot last year that are back,” Savage said. “So I think the baton gets passed and you move into a new season and just understand there’s a lot of different ways to win. It’s gonna look a little different, may feel a little different, but we’ve had a lot of different, good teams.”
New USC baseball coach Jason Gill is set to takeover a Trojan program that has not seen postseason play since 201`5.
Here’s a look at the other 10 Division I teams in the Southland:
Cal Baptist: The Lancers’ inaugural season of Division I play went better than could have been expected. Cal Baptist jumped from Division II and went 35-20 and earned a share of the WAC regular-season title. But it has to replace more than 300 innings of pitching and four all-conference players, including WAC Pitcher of the Year Logan Rinehart (9-0, 3.20 ERA).
Cal State Fullerton: The unthinkable happened a year ago when the Titans didn’t make the NCAA tournament for the first time in 28 years. They went 27-26, breaking a 44-year streak of winning 30 or more games, but Rick Vanderhook’s squad is ready to start some new streaks this season. Fullerton will have to rely on a lot of young talent, but junior Tanner Bibee (5-7, 4.33 ERA) could be the key to success as a Friday night starter.
Cal State Northridge: Dave Serrano, who previously led UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton to the College World Series, returns to Southern California to lead the Matadors after seven seasons coaching east of the Mississippi River. He takes over a program looking for its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2002.
Long Beach State: After Troy Buckley was fired midseason, the Dirtbags went out and hired Eric Valenzuela. He has been tasked with turning around a program that has had two losing seasons in a row after being 90 feet away from a trip to Omaha just three years ago. Valenzuela has the chops, having transformed a moribund Saint Mary’s program (no 30-win seasons since 1991) into a WCC contender (four straight 30-win seasons) thanks to his acumen for recruiting and developing pitchers.
Loyola Marymount: Jason Gill may be gone, but the Lions will try to continue his philosophies of relying on pitching and defense this year under Nathan Choate, who was elevated from pitching coach to first-time head coach. He has plenty of talent to work with led by the electric Nick Frasso. The 6-foot-5 junior was 2-2, 2.22 ERA with 10 saves last year and has a fastball that has peaked at 97 mph.
Pepperdine: Starting pitching will be the strength of the Waves, especially if Wil Jensen returns to the form he displayed in 2017 when he was leading the nation with a 0.74 ERA nearly two months into the season prior to an elbow injury. Junior right-hander Cooper Chandler (3-1, 3.07 ERA) could be primed for a big year as well.
UC Irvine: The Anteaters lost two of the Big West’s top starting pitchers, but return arguably the best pitcher on the West Coast in Trenton Denholm, who was selected Big West Pitcher of the Year and pitched for Team USA after going 9-4 with a 1.81 ERA. Infield defense is a concern with three newcomers slotted at second base, shortstop and third base.
UC Riverside: In a conference known for relying on strong pitching, the Highlanders had a 6.86 ERA last year, but coach Troy Percival is confident his club will be much better on the mound this year. Getting his son Cole back from an elbow stress fracture and adding UC Irvine bounce-back transfer Jake Lachemann, the grandson of former Angels manager and pitching coach Marcel Lachemann, is the genesis of that confidence.
UC Santa Barbara: The Gauchos were one of the surprises of 2019, getting out to a 44-7 start before faltering the final two weekends losing four of five, including an 0-2 showing in the Stanford Regional. Andrew Checketts has a major rebuild on his hands after losing the top six hitters in his lineup, his top two starting pitchers, two key relievers, associate head coach Donegal Fergus and Director of Analytics Tony Ortiz, who became the fourth former UCSB student staff member to be hired by a Major League Baseball franchise in recent years.
USC: The Trojans enter the Jason Gill era with some big-time pitching talent. Ten pitchers are capable of throwing better than 90 mph. The issue in the past has been consistently throwing strikes, but Gill was pleased with the progress of the group under pitching coach Ted Silva. A veteran infield led by Ben Ramirez and Jamal O’Guinn on the left side should give the staff confidence that it can attack in the zone and rely on the defense.
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