UCLA’s miracle workers making it happen
Follow Kendall Rogers on Twitter at @ysportsncaabb.
Sometimes it takes longer than expected for a miracle worker to do his duty.
That certainly is the case with UCLA hitting coach Rick Vanderhook, who is guiding the Bruins to one of their most productive offensive campaigns in school history this season.
His story began a couple of years ago, though.
With Vanderhook, the former long-time Cal State Fullerton hitting coach, out of work after Dave Serrano took over the program three seasons ago, it was near that time that UCLA was looking for a new hitting coach.
Brian Green had moved on to coach at Kentucky, and UCLA coach John Savage knew he had to make a splash hire that would have people buzzing. He approached Vanderhook about the opening. Vanderhook, to no surprise, obliged and joined the Bruins.
With a résumé full of impressive accomplishments, the immediate expectations for Vanderhook were staggering. Those on the West Coast expected Vanderhook to make an immediate impact but that didn’t happen in the production department.
The Bruins finished last season with a .285 batting average and struggled most of the season on their way to a 27-29 record and no NCAA postseason berth.
Vanderhook, meanwhile, remained patient and came to the realization that turning the Bruins around at the plate was far from a race. It supposedly was a marathon.
That marathon, though, has been cut short this season with the Bruins sporting a .347 batting average through 25 games.
After the Bruins broke for the summer at the end of last season, the always fiery and truthful Vanderhook didn’t berate or read the riot act to his players. Instead, he wished many of them the best as they embarked on their trips to various summer leagues.
When the Bruins returned for fall workouts, though, Vanderhook saw something that was amazing: a complete transformation of attitudes.
He saw exactly what he was looking for his first season.
“Ken Ravizza, a great psychologist, came in during the fall and talked to our players about who they wanted to be as a team. They had a clear vision of where they wanted to be,” Vanderhook said. “I certainly would like to say that the transformation is completely something we did as a coaching staff, but what is happening right now is what the players wanted. The players on this team, specifically at the plate, wanted a new identity.”
In past campaigns, it’s no secret the Bruins were accused of sometimes being a squad that didn’t exactly have an incredible will to win. That attitude, many thought, seemed to rear its ugly head the most in the NCAA postseason.
UCLA senior Blair Dunlap knows all about the previous stereotypes. And after finishing last season with just a .301 batting average, he was one of many players that entered fall workouts with a new lease on their careers and a different attitude.
“When we came back this season, we really wanted to establish a new identity for this program,” Dunlap said. “From working hard in the weight room to working hard on the field in the fall, we wanted to show we could win a lot of games, especially one-run games. We knew we had to get much tougher to win at a higher level. Now we really know where we want to be as a team.”
Dunlap’s incredible turnaround story is just one of many for the Bruins. Dunlap is hitting .394 with three homers; Justin Uribe is hitting .403 with 17 RBI; and sophomore transfer Dean Espy has been a great addition and is hitting .422 with four homers and 24 RBI. And most impressive is the improvement of sophomore infielder Tyler Rahmatulla, who is hitting .422 with three homers and 23 RBI after finishing last season hitting .222.
“I think a lot of our success this season has stemmed from the mental work we did during fall workouts. That has allowed us to really relax in certain big-time situations. The same situations we weren’t relaxed in last season,” Rahmatulla said. “We really didn’t like the feeling of losing so much last season and vowed to stay mentally focused.”
With a 23-2 record entering this weekend’s series against Oregon State, the Bruins haven’t been mentally tested too much from an adversity standpoint. But the Bruins dropped their first game of the season in a Saturday contest against Stanford. A day later, the Bruins scored seven runs en route to a series-clinching win over the Cardinal.
UCLA once again will be tested this weekend against the Beavers. The Bruins dropped a 6-1 decision to Cal State Fullerton earlier this week. In past seasons, there’s no question a loss like that would stay with the Bruins for a few days.
But this season, the Bruins have a new attitude and mentality.
They finally have an offense to be proud of, too.
Charlotte – The 49ers are in complete control of the Atlantic 10 with a 9-1 record in their last 10 games and a perfect 6-0 conference record. It also helps the 49ers are an impressive 20-6 overall.
Cal State Fullerton – The Titans are heating up just in time for their annual date against Big West rival UC Irvine. The Titans have won eight of their last 10, and that includes a great midweek win over red-hot UCLA.
Texas – The Longhorns have been on an absolute tear in the past week. They made a huge statement on the road against Oklahoma and appear to have total control of the Big 12 a few weeks into conference play.
Miami – The Hurricanes are red-hot, having won seven straight games with a 10-2 ACC mark and a 22-7 overall record. UM is really in business if it can earn a road series win over Virginia Tech this weekend.
Michigan State – The Spartans have only won three straight games, but they are 9-1 in their last 10 games and have an impressive 20-5 record. This weekend’s series at Minnesota will be difficult.
Connecticut – The Huskies have won seven straight games and seem to have their sights set on an NCAA regional. They are 4-2 in Big East play with a series coming up against Villanova.
California – Don’t sleep on Dave Esquer’s Golden Bears just yet. Though the Bears still are only .500 in Pac-10 play, they have won five straight, including earning a home series sweep over Arizona.
Northwestern – The Wildcats were one of the sexy picks to take a step forward in the Big Ten. Yeah, not so much. The Wildcats are 1-2 in Big 10 play, and 2-8 in their last 10 games and 7-20 overall.
Oklahoma State – The Cowboys will need a miracle to make an NCAA regional this season. They are 2-4 in Big 12 play, have a horrible RPI and just lost two midweek games. OSU must win the Texas Tech series.
Winthrop – The Eagles were expected to take a step forward this season, but have lost five straight games, have a 1-5 Big South record and are 13-15 overall. Joe Hudak’s club needs to turn things around.
Cal State Northridge – It wasn’t too long ago the Matadors were making our list of winners. Now they’re in trouble with five straight losses, an 0-3 Big West mark and a 16-12 record.
Ohio – The Bobcats finally snapped a six-game losing streak against Marshall this week, but that doesn’t diminish the fact they have been horrible so far this season. Ohio has a 4-22 overall record and a 1-5 mark in the MAC.
Bradley – The Braves are in trouble in the MVC. They are losers of nine straight games, have a 0-6 mark in conference and a 6-17 record. Things may not get much easier this weekend with a road series against Missouri State.
Georgia – We’re not sure the Bulldogs will ever leave the cold list. The Bulldogs are back on a losing streak, have a 10-19 overall record and a dismal 2-7 mark in the SEC. This team won’t be bouncing back.
Georgia Tech gets its ultimate test – It’s finally time to find out what the Yellow Jackets are made of. Tech has earned series wins over North Carolina and Duke in ACC play, but neither is near caliber of Virginia. Tech has done a phenomenal job at the plate but outside of ace pitcher Deck McGuire, the key to the weekend is how the Tech pitching staff fares against Virginia’s big bats. Tech definitely could earn the road series win if the pitching staff rises to the occasion. If not, Tech will head home with some lingering questions.
N.C. State and North Carolina not exactly marquee – In most years, the annual series between the Wolfpack and Tar Heels is one of the better matchups of the season. Not this spring. The Wolfpack took a step forward last weekend with a home series win over Virginia. However, they still have an unimpressive RPI. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, have a high RPI but a dismal conference record and a bad mark against RPI Top 50 teams. Whoever loses this series will have a tough time becoming a regional lock.
UCLA hits the road to face Oregon State – The Bruins are having an incredible season, but one look at their schedule reveals they only have played three true road games, and none of those were part of a three-game series. That changes when the Bruins head to Corvallis, Ore. The Beavers don’t quite have the offense the Bruins possess, but certainly have enough pitching to finish the weekend with a series win. UCLA, though, will win the series if it plays like it has since the start of the season. Still, it will be very interesting to see if the Bruins deviate from their normal brand of baseball in their first true road trip.
The Conference USA crown. Decided this early? – Okay, it is probably a little too soon to say the C-USA regular season title will be decided. But there is a great chance this series could determine who has the upper hand. The Green Wave has work to do from an RPI standpoint, but has played well the past few weeks. Rice, meanwhile, played well against Houston last weekend, but has been unable to establish consistency. With the series down in the Big Easy, Tulane has the edge. In a bad year for the C-USA, the champion easily could be the Owls or Green Wave.
Winning seems to cure everything. At least that is the case for most teams outside the Northeast region.
Connecticut has compiled an impressive 19-7 record this season, and it would appear it would easily make an NCAA regional if the season ended today. However, Rhode Island’s experience last season haunts every school in the region.
The Rams compiled a solid resume last season and an RPI worthy of an NCAA regional berth. But the NCAA Selection Committee gave several unworthy programs regional berths.
As the Huskies continue to rack up wins, they vow to never forget about what happened to the Rams. The snubbing, in the words of Connecticut coach Jim Penders, is a source of motivation.
For now, though, the fact the Huskies are even thinking about an NCAA regional appearance is a huge step forward.
Penders discussed his team, their strengths and their postseason chances.
Rogers: The team is 19-7 through 26 games this season. How would you assess your club at this point?
Penders: I really have been happy with our starting pitching so far this season. We lost an awful lot of arms out of our bullpen last season, six key pitchers to be exact. That was a heck of a lot to absorb. But our guys have done a great job of not missing a beat on the mound. Elliot Glynn, Matt Barnes and Greg Nappo have done a nice job. We also have been getting some good outings from Pat Butler. I’m just very happy with what the starting pitching has accomplished because we haven’t had to rely too much on the bullpen just yet. I’m sure we’re going to get tested as the season progresses, though.
Rogers: What do you believe could improve between now and the end of the regular season?
Penders: Two of our better prospects in Mike Olt and George Springer haven’t gotten going offensively so far this season. But we have played excellent defense and have been able to win games without those two studs. Both Olt and Springer are still driving in some runs, but they just don’t have the batting average that we’re accustomed to. If we can get them going down the stretch, we could be very dangerous at the plate. We are hitting below .300 but have played very sound defense. This could be a special team once Olt and Springer get on track for good.
Rogers: With an RPI of 46 right now, there is a great chance you should be in an NCAA regional if the team continues to win. But does the disrespect by the committee toward Northeast programs make you a little nervous?
Penders: No question about it. I really thought Coach Foster and the Rams got absolutely screwed last season. You can put together the schedule they had and do the job he did with that club and not get into a regional. As far as I am concerned, that was just criminal. We look at what they did and then look at the fact we dropped 11 RPI points by just playing Massachusetts in the midweek. We can’t fly to Texas on a Wednesday and play a midweek game, and I’m not sure we would do that even if we could. All we can do is go out and beat these teams in the midweek and let nature take its course. Unless we play Boston College every week, we’re in a little trouble from an RPI standpoint. I am encouraged by the conference this year and the fact more teams are doing well. I think we will be OK if we take care of business.
Rogers: You talked about Springer and Olt not having such great campaigns this season, but others have risen to the occasion. How about the offense this season?
Penders: Mike Nemeth is constantly a guy that is overlooked by many people, but he probably is our most consistent hitter. He proved a lot with his glove last season, but people need to realize he can really hit. He very rarely gets himself out. Nick Ahmed has really blossomed at the plate and seems to be getting better and better each time out. We have plenty of other guys that just seem to get great jumps on the base paths and do a nice job of baserunning. We really like to put pressure on defenses with our speed, and that really has bailed us out at times this season, especially when we haven’t hit that well.
Rogers: Starting pitchers Elliot Glynn and Matt Barnes have done a great job this season. Can you talk about the job they and the rest of the staff has done?
Penders: Elliot is just our warrior out there. He certainly isn’t the 6-foot-5, 220 pound specimen that some people really like, but you always tend to see teams shaking their heads on the way back to the dugout. You can’t get much of him. He has a nice little cutter and a really good feel on the mound. He also isn’t afraid of contact. He really dares hitters to put the ball in play. Barnes is more of a power arm for us. He is really learning how to pitch, and has established a good breaking ball. He has no fear at all. I remember last season he was matched up with Louisville’s Tony Zych. He didn’t even belong on the same mound as Zych. A couple of weeks ago in the series finale against the Cardinals, I thought Barnes was better than Zych. He has caught up with those types of talents, and now the sky is the limit.
Rogers: This is your fifth season as head coach at Connecticut. Do you finally feel like the program as a whole has turned the corner?
Penders: We sure hope so. It has been a steady build and climb. The last seven years or so, we have broken some school records for wins on two occasions. We also have played for the Big East title two of the last three years. We’re a good and talented club. We also have worked very hard and have great work ethic. We’re going to have some tests, but we’ll see if that holds true in the coming weeks. April is going to be very telling for us. We have a golden opportunity to get into the season and win a title. With the job our pitching staff has done so far this season, I like our club a lot.
Rogers: What has been the biggest reason the program has experienced so much success this season?
Penders: I believe assistant coach Justin Blood has been a big part of it. I was part of our teams in the late 90s as an assistant and we were very much built more around the offensive side of things. We maybe fell in love with our hitters a bit too much. And that cost us. Now, we’re not neglecting pitching and spend about 70 percent of our scholarship money on pitching. I’ve been very fortunate to have guys like Dave Turgeon and Justin Blood coaching for me. Blood does a super job not only coaching pitchers, but also recruiting solid talent. We are so much more talented than we used to be. We’re keeping some of the pitchers arms in Connecticut. If we can keep more kids around here, I feel like we could get to Omaha. We’re definitely making progress.
UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton are the Big West leaders entering the second half of the season. Which team will go farther in the postseason?
Cal State Fullerton entered the season with a higher ranking for a reason. The Titans welcomed back several key pitchers from last year’s club. They also returned enough offensive cogs to compile a solid average. Though the Titans got off to a slow start, they are now hitting .327 against the nation’s toughest schedule. Irvine, meanwhile, is hitting .318 against a not-so-great non-conference schedule. Fullerton has more pitching depth, but Irvine has the better weekend rotation. Overall, though, the Titans have the more balanced club and that will be proven as the season progresses.
Who would you say has been a surprise and disappointment in the SEC so far this season?
There aren’t too many surprises in the SEC this spring, but I am a bit surprised at how well Mississippi has done. The Rebels entered the season with a plethora of question marks in several areas. But so far this season, the Rebels have done a solid job at the plate with a .307 batting average. The pitching staff, meanwhile, has gotten great starts from hurlers Drew Pomeranz and Aaron Barrett so far this season. The Rebels will compete for the SEC crown and could make a run to the College World Series if their bullpen and No. 3 spot in the weekend rotation come through. Those are the two areas of concern entering the second half of the season.
Who is a team that no one is talking about that could be dangerous down the stretch and in the postseason?
The Horned Frogs turned everyone off a couple of weekends ago by finding a way to somehow struggle on the road against Air Force. But don’t think twice about doubting this club. The Frogs are a very good club and will prove it down the stretch. The Frogs have a very solid weekend rotation that includes Steven Maxwell, Kyle Winkler and Matt Purke. Relievers Tyler Lockwood, Trent Appleby and Erik Miller also are solid. At the plate, the Frogs are hitting .339 and have two of the nation’s better position players in catcher Bryan Holaday and outfielder Jason Coats. TCU has a wealth of experience and has been through a super regional experience. It will be a tough out in the postseason.
Arizona State veteran left-handed pitcher Josh Spence hasn’t thrown this season because of arm soreness. Well, don’t look for the lefty to throw against Washington State this weekend, either. Despite throwing bullpens and in live game situations during practice, Spence apparently is still unable to go according to the Sun Devils. It appears the Devils still are in wait-and-see mode when it comes to their veteran lefty … As we reported earlier this week, Arkansas is slated to move veteran pitcher Mike Bolsinger back to the bullpen against Mississippi State this weekend. The Hogs will start Drew Smyly and Brett Eibner on Friday and Saturday against the Bulldogs. Bolsinger, meanwhile, definitely could start on Sunday if the Hogs do not have to use him on Friday or Saturday. Bolsinger will be used as the Hogs’ do-it-all pitcher … Auburn has missed having hard-hitting Trent Mummey in its lineup. But Mummey returned to the lineup on Tuesday and made his presence known against Georgia State. Mummey hit a home run in the game and finished the contest 2-for-2 with two runs and four RBIs. It’ll be interesting to see how the Tigers move forward with Mummey back in action … Arkansas pitcher Drew Smyly has battled some blister issues this season, but that hasnât kept him from having a banner campaign. Smyly had another solid start against Kentucky last weekend, striking out five and allowing just a run on four hits in seven innings … It will be very interesting to see what LSU does with right-handed pitcher Anthony Ranaudo this weekend. The Tigers have brought Ranaudo back slowly, throwing him just a couple of innings against Tennessee two weeks ago, and just three innings against Georgia last weekend. With Auburn on the docket this weekend, we’ll see if the Tigers extend his workload from three to perhaps five or six innings … In another Arkansas note, the Razorbacks will be without first baseman Andy Wilkins this weekend after he tweaked his hamstring against Kentucky last weekend. UA coach Dave Van Horn said earlier this week the injury was not serious … LSU outfielder Trey Watkins, a sparkplug for the Tigers so far this season, will miss a month or perhaps even more because of a dislocated elbow. Athletic outfielder Mikie Mahtook is doing a fantastic job in Watkin’s absence atop the lineup … Could Oklahoma be ready to move outstanding reliever Jeremy Erben to the weekend rotation? In an extended relief stint against TCU on Tuesday, Erben was fantastic. He struck out nine batters and allowed just two runs and six hits in 7 2/3 innings of work. Moving Erben to the rotation seems like a good move for the Sooners, which have another solid reliever in Ryan Duke … Kentucky sophomore pitcher Alex Meyer has a 7.64 ERA this season, but you can’t accuse the left-handed pitcher of not throwing hard enough. Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said earlier this week that Meyer hit 100 MPH at least four times against the Razorbacks last weekend. The information, Van Horn said, came from MLB scouts … Florida State coach Mike Martin reached another milestone last weekend when he won his 1,600th career game in a 9-6 win over Virginia Tech. The Seminoles, though, dropped the series to the Hokies … Also worth noting, Wichita State coach Gene Stephenson notched his 1,700th win with a victory over Evansville last weekend. The Shockers are 18-9 this season.
Arizona State and UCLA – It’s safe to say it would take collapses by Arizona State and UCLA for the two programs not to earn national seeds. The Sun Devils, according to Boyd’s World’s RPI Needs Report, could finish the regular season 13-14 the rest of the way and still have a top eight RPI. UCLA isn’t so lucky, but the Bruins still could finish the regular season with an 18-12 record and have a top eight RPI. Both teams are in fantastic shape the rest of the way.
N.C. State – We said last week that N.C. State desperately needed a home series win over Virginia. Well, the Wolfpack recorded a win over the Cavaliers and saw their RPI improve to 71 following the series victory. N.C. State still has plenty of work to do with a 3-7 road record and just a 3-7 record against RPI Top 50 teams, but at least it is back in the NCAA postseason discussion. The Wolfpack could use another series win against rival North Carolina this weekend.
Tulane – If they fail to win the regular season title, the Green Wave is working toward an at-large berth. The Green Wave climbed to an RPI of 66 after the road series win over East Carolina. Tulane still has a tough 2-4 record on the road, but has four wins over RPI Top 50 teams so far this season. A series win over Rice, which has an RPI of 45, would be huge for Rick Jones’ club.
Cal State Fullerton – With the Pac-10 surging this season and the West Coast looking for an additional regional host, the region might just have their answer in Cal State Fullerton. The Titans are 8-2 in their last 10 games and have climbed all the way to 16 in the RPI with a respectable 16-11 record. The Titans have an unimpressive overall record, but you must consider they have the nation’s toughest schedule and have eight wins against RPI Top 50 teams
North Carolina – The Tar Heels’ resume so far this season is the best example that the RPI can be a very screwy system at times. The Tar Heels are 20-11, 4-8 in the ACC and 1-5 against Top 50 RPI teams. However, they have a very solid RPI of 27. Though the Tar Heels could turn the tide the rest of the season, there’s a great chance they would be left out of the NCAA postseason if the season ended today.
There are few places in America better than being in the State of Texas, but Nashville, Tenn., is a close second. I spent two years in Nashville at the Rivals.com headquarters in Brentwood, Tenn., a suburb of the Music City. As you might expect, I was introduced to a plethora of fantastic eateries around the area. Here are a few to remember the next time you’re in the Music City.
Arnold’s Country Kitchen – Strategically placed near downtown Nashville, this classic meat-and-three features everything from chicken fried chicken to smothered hamburger steak. The sides at this place, which features southern green beans, mashed potatoes and southern delights, also are off the charts good.
Copper Kettle – For one of the two years I lived in Nashville, I lived near Lipscomb University. Copper Kettle was another classic meat-and-three located across the street from the Lipscomb campus. Copper Kettle offers excellent southern cuisine and also had coconut fried chicken that was fantastic. Also, the dinner rolls at this place are simply fantastic.
Loveless Cafe – We’re going a little trendy here. Loveless Cafe is one of the famous restaurants in the Nashville area. But in all honesty, the breakfast at this place is absolutely fantastic, from the pecan pancakes to the wonderful biscuits and spreads they provide you with. Dinner is just OK, but breakfast is fantastic.
Monell’s Dining – Another favorite of southern food connoisseurs in the region, Monell’s offers “family-style” dining. In essence, you sit at a table with a group of people and hand around the dishes of food just as you would at your family dinner table. The food at this place is excellent and the atmosphere obviously is great for families looking to head out for dinner.