UCLA baseball enters new era

What does the No. 1 overall pick in the MLB Draft get? Yep, a banner next to Eric Karros. Blair Angulo

LOS ANGELES -- A new banner greets UCLA baseball fans when they reach the concourse at Jackie Robinson Stadium. It hangs by the main entrance on the first-base side, next to an old one of former Bruins infielder and Los Angeles Dodgers career home run record holder Eric Karros. A bronze statue of the man for whom the ballpark is named sits a few yards away.

It’s precise product placement, and there’s no shame in promoting former UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole, the top overall selection in last year’s MLB amateur draft. Cole arrived on campus in 2009 and, along with third overall draft pick and Golden Spikes Award winner Trevor Bauer, would go on to lead the Bruins to their first College World Series appearance since 1997 and their first Pac-10 championship since 1986. Bauer, too, is recognized on a banner which hangs next to one of Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley on the third-base side, behind the UCLA dugout.

“You have to recognize them, they warranted it,” eighth-year head coach John Savage says. “Those are high honors, but it’s a credit to both of those guys for being special people and players at UCLA.”

The banners are commemorative, yes. They’re meant to inspire current team members — a third-year player says they’re indicative of UCLA’s recent success. They’re meant to attract recruits, meant to boost the program’s perception. At the same time, they’re a reminder that Cole, an elite prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates system, and Bauer, a spring training invitee with the Arizona Diamondbacks, are gone.

UCLA baseball, though, has been transformed. Maybe forever.

For the last three years, Fridays and Saturdays at Jackie Robinson Stadium meant swarms of radar guns and video cameras. Finding a seat behind home plate for one of Cole’s starts? Nearly impossible. You’d have a better chance driving at speed limit on Interstate 405.

“Cole and Bauer brought talent,” Savage says. “You’re not going to see those arms in college very often. They brought a trip to Omaha, brought a Pac-10 championship, brought 86 wins over the last two years. That’s a lot of wins.”

And that’s a lot of scouts braving traffic during rush hour.

Opening night is slightly different this year. Sophomore ace Adam Plutko is the reason why it’s only slightly different. The right-hander out of Glendora escapes a no-out, bases-loaded jam in the seventh inning. Plutko doesn’t throw as hard as Cole -- not many do -- but he strikes out 10 in seven scoreless innings. In a late-game sequence that’s reminiscent of the underachieving 2011 campaign, the bullpen falters late and the Bruins lose to Maryland, 2-1. Plutko returns to the clubhouse after the final out and receives a text message. Yep, from Cole.

It reads: “Great job.”

Apparently, it doesn’t take long for the successor to gain approval from predecessor.

“Gerrit and Trevor changed the program forever, there’s no doubt about that, but they’re gone,” Plutko says. “It’s been tough for some people outside of this team to handle but I don’t think the 35 people in the clubhouse care that they’re gone. It’s been about us, not about what we lost or what we had.”

Savage calmly sits in his office sorting through box score statistics. He points out that over 1,000 fans showed up on a chilly Friday night, and raves about the direction of his program. He knows he can’t replace pitchers like Bauer and Cole.

But, in every sense of the word, Savage wants to build.

“We can recruit, we can get players,” he says.

That much is true, with three of the most coveted high school pitching prospects signing with the Bruins: Harvard-Westlake’s Lucas Giolito and Max Fried and Camarillo’s Hunter Virant.

“The ballpark is shaping up pretty darn nice,” Savage continues. “We’ve done a lot of work to it. There’s not at a bad seat in the house. We’re trying to make it as fan friendly as we can. I think there’s a lot of buzz around the program and our players are excited about that.”

Says junior catcher Tyler Heineman: “Interest is going up, it’s definitely going up.”

The Bruins averaged nearly 1,000 fans per home game last season, and well over 1,100 the year before. Prior to Cole and Bauer’s arrival, UCLA was averaging less than 700 per game. The two, undoubtedly, left the program in better shape than they found it.

“Gerrit and Trevor put us on a national scale,” Plutko says. “UCLA is known for baseball now.”