There's something perplexing about Gerrit Cole when he's not on the mound. He speaks slowly and hesitates often. Every one of his words has a specific, calculated purpose. It's as if he's painting the corners and mixing in the occasional changeup.
Even when he isn't looking at anything in particular, Cole has a blank, concentrated stare. It's sharp and difficult to gauge, like when a pitcher shakes his head just to mess with the batter's mind.
And then, suddenly, it hits you: Cole has grown up some.
"A lot, a lot," Cole said. "It's been a crazy process, it's been like three different stories almost."
The first story centers around a fresh-faced right-handed pitcher who arrived in Westwood in the fall of 2008 as perhaps the most highly regarded recruit in UCLA baseball history. He had been drafted in the first round out of Orange Lutheran High by his favorite team, the New York Yankees. He had spurned big money and big dreams for a chance to play college ball.
For a chance to grow up.
"You can't really put a price on the things you learn, the experiences, the memories," Cole said. "It's been a thrill so far."
Cole -- who will man the rubber in UCLA's season opener Friday at Jackie Robinson Stadium -- soaked up a whole lot last season. Let's call it his second of three stories. It's the magical one minus the happy ending.
The Bruins reached the College World Series for just the third time in school history last season, registering a program-record 51 wins. Cole was UCLA's starting pitcher in its first-ever championship-round appearance. He had some tough luck and took the loss that night, falling to South Carolina, 7-1. Still bothered by the defeat, Cole watched a portion of his start when he got back to his hotel room. He then re-watched his outing a couple of times after returning from Omaha, without a national championship.
The memories are still fresh.
"It was a disappointment," Cole said. "But then you look back on it and maybe it's not quite as bad as you thought. The expectations heading into this season are the same thing. All of us are gunning for a national championship. We're not just gunning to get to Omaha or just to win the Pac-10, we're going for the whole thing. If we don't come out with the trophy it will be a little disappointing, I think."
Especially since it's most likely his final crack at it. Which brings us to Cole's third and, most likely, last story.
He's draft-eligible for the first time since 2008 and projected to be chosen in the first round again this June. Cole has been pegged as the top prospect on the U.S. collegiate national team each of the last two summers. Players, especially first-round picks, don't usually pass up the pros. They rarely do it twice.
Cole's powerful right arm figures to light up its share of radar guns this season, but there's more to these Bruins. UCLA is ranked No. 1 in the ESPN/USA Today preseason poll and expected by many to return to the Cornhusker State in July. If it happens, Cole will have already been drafted.
"We do have some draft-eligible players that are highly thought of," head coach John Savage said. "There's a lot that we're dealing with on and off the field, really. But we just get down to that practice, that drill and that situation. We try to get better that day."
For Cole, the daily grind begins and ends with the command of all his pitches -- more accuracy with his high-90's fastball, better location with his slider, higher consistency with his changeup. By polishing his repertoire, he'll be able to work through challenging in-game situations.
The mental side of pitching, though, will give Cole a sense of how much he has matured in two-plus years.
He's a leader in the clubhouse as well. There was little buzz surrounding UCLA last spring -- until the Bruins reeled off 22 straight wins to start the season. Cole was the spokesman for a superstitious no-shave policy throughout the streak.
A year later, Cole welcomes the target that's stamped on his team's back. He believes others have also embraced the task. And if minds begin to wander, Cole is one of four team captains responsible for getting the team back on track.
"I've enjoyed being captain, it's been fun," Cole said with a grin. "I don't know how good I am at it yet. We'll see."
Cole has to be Savage's eyes when he's not looking. Good thing he has that impenetrable gaze.