Caught up with UCLA baseball coach John Savage at Southern California Baseball Media Day in Anaheim on Wednesday after he won "Best Presentation" in the third annual ESPN Zone Coaches Cook-off. Here's a transcript of the conversation:
What's the feeling heading into the Feb. 18 opener?
Savage: I think we have great chemistry within the program. There's a lot of guys who played in Omaha last year and went through a season of 51 wins. I think they're expecting bigger and better things. That's tough to do when you win that many games and you get that close to a national championship, but there's unfinished business. We know it's a process, we know it's a game to game thing. We don't want to get ahead of ourselves. We did lose a lot of depth -- we lost 54 percent of our innings. People don't realize that. All they want to talk about is (Gerrit) Cole and (Trevor) Bauer, but this team is not going to be all about them. We need the young guys to step up and we need a new shortstop, some new guys in the field that are going to have to step up. We've got some questions to be answered for sure. We know we're young in some spots -- only two seniors on the roster, not a lot of juniors. If you look at the percentage of players on our roster, a lot of them are freshmen or sophomores. The expectations are there and that's always a good thing.
You've named freshman Adam Plutko as the team's Sunday starter and freshman Nick Vander Tuig as closer. What made you settle on those two?
Savage: It's not a final answer, but we're grooming Adam to be that Sunday guy. He has pitched very well in January and had a very good fall. He's really a guy that had a tremendous senior year [at Glendora High]. He had all the intangibles to be a front line Division I starter, so we're going to go with it. Vander Tuig, on the back end of the game, didn't pitch his senior year, so he hasn't pitched competitively in a long time. But he's a very talented guy, he's completely healthy, throws strikes with three pitches, holds runners, we think he has the mentality to close out games. He has big shoes to fill with [third-rounder] Dan Klein and certainly Adam with [second-rounder] Rob Rasmussen. There's going to be some learning moments, for sure, at the beginning of the year. But that's what the beginning of the year is for. What we start off with might not be what we end up with, but we hope that goes as planned.
With three-year player Niko Gallego gone, who is your shortstop this season?
Savage: Well, we've got (freshman) Pat Valaika -- who has been very good for us -- and Adrian Williams, who brings some experience back. Adrian and Pat are really competing for that job, so we feel that either way we go, we're confident in both guys. They're both very competitive; they're leaders. That's a major role on any team -- that middle infield position. We feel like both Pat and Adrian can fill that role.
You were one of the most successful small-ball teams in the country last year, given your bunting, hit-and-runs and stealing. Do you see the new bat having an impact on your team?
Savage: Yeah, I do. The new bats are definitely going to tone down the games. I thought the game was fine the way it was played last year, the scores were fine. It's going to shorten the length of the games, that's for sure. We definitely see that. Less pitch count, I see the pitch counts not get as high. I see the ball traveling a lot less than it did. I think you'll see a lot less home runs. Doubles will have to be gappers and hard ground balls. You won't see a lot of travel with the ball. That's going to change the game a bit. Everybody is a little uncertain about how it is going to happen, but everybody is dealing with it.
What role do you see recent Cal transfer Eric Jaffe having on this team?
Savage: It looks like Jaffe will be coming out of the bullpen -- power arm, 19th-round pick of Boston coming out of high school. It's really unfortunate we got him. We still feel sick about what they decided at Cal. It was a sad day for college baseball and certainly their players. It's very, very unfortunate. Eric is a guy that has high upside and potential. We look for him to help us out of the bullpen in those middle innings.