UCLA’s Friday night ace, Adam Plutko, was recently watching the Jackie Robinson Stadium crew test out the new LED video scoreboard during a practice last week. The scores and plays from UCLA’s 9-1 win over Stony Brook in last year’s College World Series flashed across the screen.
Plutko watched with his roommate, outfielder Brian Carroll, from the field as his seven strikeouts were replayed in what was his 12th and most memorable win of his sophomore season.
But it was also the Bruins’ last win of the 2012 campaign, something that is not lost on the All-American right-hander.
“I just turned to (Carroll) and said, ‘Man, I want to go back so bad,’” Plutko said. “It’s just unbelievable how bad I want to go back.”
If history is any indication, Plutko and the Bruins may well be making that return to trip to Omaha, Neb.
UCLA has made three appearances since 2007, doing so with three pitching-rich teams. Last season, the Bruins went 48-16 and were led to Omaha by some big performances by some big arms in the postseason. Plutko headlines a list that also includes returning weekend starters in Nick Vander Tuig and Zach Weiss and standout relievers David Berg and Ryan Deeter.
A handful of highly-touted freshman arms, most notably James Kaprielian, Cody Poteet and Hunter Virant, round out a pitching staff that head coach John Savage says may be dangerously deep.
“We feel we have as deep a staff as we’ve had since 2010,” said Savage, who also doubles as the pitching coach. “You had the (Gerrit) Cole, (Trevor) Bauer factor in ’11, but we didn’t have the depth that we needed. Last year, we did a little bit with fewer numbers. We needed more guys. And this year, with the addition of Kaprielian, Poteet and Virant, our depth has gotten instantly better.”
Cole and Bauer, the first and third picks of the 2011 MLB Draft, helped engineer the greatest record in UCLA history in 2010 and the program’s first ever No. 1 RPI. Cole and Bauer pitched the Bruins all the way to the College World Series finals where they fell to South Carolina. Their duo is still talked about frequently in the Bruins’ clubhouse, helping instill a mantra of taking a season day-by-day, game-by-game. They helped build something special and even Savage concedes that they might have been two of the best pitchers in UCLA history.
Last season, Plutko and Vander Tuig was thrust into the Friday and Saturday starting roles after the departure of Cole and Bauer. Then sophomores, they had two very big shadows towering over them, but managed to step out from underneath them and forge their own paths on the mound.
“The baton has been passed and the bar has been set in terms of the expectations we want our pitchers to perform at and that’s a good thing,” Savage said. “But there’s been a lot of good pitchers here other than Cole and Bauer.”
Plutko and Vander Tuig quickly gained reputations as big-game pitchers.
In four starts in the postseason, Plutko is 4-0 with a 0.88 ERA. His four wins tie Bauer for the most postseason wins in program history and his ERA tops the Bruins’ all-time list.
In the Los Angeles Regional last season, Vander Tuig took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against New Mexico and won a Super Regional elimination game against TCU.
“I love the spotlight,” Plutko said. “When the lights shine brightest, I feel like that’s when I’m at my best.”
“The team had an edge to them last year. It was like the post-Bauer-Cole team that (said), ‘Look at us. We can do this without them,’” Savage said. “There was a little chip, and edge that we had last year…
“I think people thought the air was out of the balloon and it wasn’t.”
However, last year the Bruins had a veteran offensive core. The only player remaining from that core is junior shortstop Pat Valaika. The Bruins will need to rely on the strength of the pitching staff to make up for the relative inexperience of the offense.
Valaika is the only returning position player to have started all 61 games last season. The brother of Cincinnati Reds infielder Chris Valaika and St. Louis Cardinals farmhand Matt Valaika, hit .266 with 39 RBI and was a large part of an offense that collectively hit .304.
Three other infielders that saw significant starting action return and are expected to be much more than just role players. Positional shifting has been necessary with one key position seeing a complete overhaul.
The catching position is in question. Shane Zeile, previously an infielder, converted to catcher but his development has been slowed by a torn labrum. Freshman Darrell Miller Jr., the nephew of Reggie and Cheryl Miller and son of former major league catcher Darrell Miller Sr.,, will be in the mix to start and may carry a heavy load for a true freshman.
“I think I’d rather have experienced pitching and inexperienced catching than the reverse,” Savage said. “I think it’s going to take a while before they get comfortable. The speed of the game is different than the stuff we’re doing now.”
The recent success of the program has led to perennially high expectations. There are only a select few programs that can maintain those year after year, and the Bruins are one of them.
For the UCLA, it’s Omaha or bust.
“It was just the mindset that had changed and now it’s about carrying that tradition,” Plutko said. “That’s a testament to our coaching staff and the sports staff we have around us. Every year we’re in the national rankings now.”
Each new season opens up with a new set of questions, and the Bruins will begin to find answers to those questions this weekend when they open up the 2013 campaign by hosting Minnesota in a three-game series at Jackie Robinson Stadium.
“It’s not real until we play the opener and the lights are on and people are in the stands,” Savage said. “Here we go.”