John Savage should be guiding his team during its first conference series of the year, but the UCLA baseball coach is now deliberating with major league teams. All parties are equally flummoxed.
They’ve never seen anything like the coronavirus pandemic.
“It just seems like everything’s been cut short,” Savage said in a phone interview.
Instead of trying to guide the No. 4 Bruins toward their first College World Series since 2013, Savage is coming to grips with a season cut short as the NCAA canceled all winter and spring championships amid the coronavirus pandemic, and the Pac-12 Conference put a stop to all games for the rest of the year.
Those measures may bring a disappointing end to the careers of some of Savage’s most talented juniors. He has never been one to dodge a question about players getting drafted after their junior years, but when asked whether he believed Garrett Mitchell, a 6-foot-3 and 215-pound outfielder who runs from home to first in less than four seconds, had played his last game for the Bruins, Savage said “I don’t know” four times.
The situation has created unprecedented uncertainty for the MLB draft. Savage talks to professional teams scouting players with such a limited sample size. It applies to the high school level too, where most seasons are being canceled too. Savage is not sure what it all means.
But Savage believes this: If Mitchell had played an entire season, he would have been a top-five pick. The leadoff hitter is a “bona fide five-tool player,” Savage said, and is “clearly one of the most talented players we’ve ever had on the position side.”
“He was really blossoming into the star we thought he was,” Savage said.
With Mitchell batting .355 with nine runs batted in and a team-high six doubles, the Bruins (13-2) were first in RPI before the season’s sudden end. They knocked off defending national champion Vanderbilt on March 6.
The success came one year after losing a school-record 13 players in the MLB draft. That talented team won a program-record 52 games, and replacing so many pieces at once seemed like a heavy burden.
“This group of players recovered and were writing their own script,” Savage said.
Sophomore Matt McLain led the Bruins with a .397 average and 19 RBIs during the nonconference season, and had four doubles, three home runs and was slugging .621.
The 5-11 shortstop started 60 games last season, but hit only .203. McLain, a 2018 first-round draft pick from Irvine Beckman High, came to the plate as the Super Regional-winning run that could have sent the Bruins to the CWS. With two on, two out and UCLA down two runs, McLain grounded out.
Nine months later, on March 8, McLain drove in what would be UCLA’s final runs of the year with a two-run double during a 15-3 victory over USC.
“We’re watching him grow in front of our eyes,” Savage said.
UCLA lost consensus first-team All-American pitcher Ryan Garcia, but remained among the best pitching staffs in the country. Led by Holden Powell, who was named the best reliever in the nation last year and was off to an even better start with 20 strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings pitched, and starters Zach Pettway and Jesse Bergin, the Bruins were ranked third nationally with a 1.88 earned-run average.
Their offense was catching on, scoring a season high in runs and hits (19) in the final game.
“This team was just starting to grow,” Savage said. “It felt like one of those teams that maybe was a little bit under the radar to begin with, but when you have to go play the games, they were off to a pretty good start.”