One-on-one with UCLA’s John Savage
Follow Kendall Rogers on Twitter at @ysportsncaabb.
UCLA wishes the season ended today.
If it did, there’s a good chance the Bruins would enter the postseason as one of the favorites to reach the College World Series.
But for now, the Bruins are focused on establishing even more consistency and building off their impressive 9-0 start.
In addition to a pitching staff and weekend rotation that clearly is one of the nation’s best, the Bruins have shown major improvement at the plate so far this season with assistant coach Rick Vanderhook leading the way. They are hitting .379 with six hitters hitting over .400.
UCLA coach John Savage, who is in his sixth season, certainly is cautious about the hot start. After all, there are 47 games left on the regular season schedule. But he can’t help but be excited about what has transpired so far this season.
Savage discussed his team’s hot start and a variety of other topics.
Rogers: The team is off to an incredible 9-0 start this season against a solid schedule. What are your thoughts on the fast start after such a slow start last season?
Savage: We always play a difficult schedule. We try to challenge ourselves as much as we can before conference play begins. We’re doing that again this season. It’s nice to get off to this start after starting last season with a 2-10 record through 12 games. We’ve always been a pretty decent road team and we weren’t one last season. That really hurt us when you play a 56-game schedule. It took us forever to get back to .500. I think the players on this team are ready for the challenges that lie ahead.
R: What exactly were your concerns going into the season? Do you still have concerns about those areas?
S: We felt we would be much improved offensively. We recruited a plethora of good athletes in Beau Amaral, Cody Keefer, Dean Espy and Cody Regis. I really liked all the guys we brought in during the fall and thought they would really add to what we already had on campus. Still, I didn’t know what we were going to be offensively entering the season. We had a good idea but you never know for sure until you go out there and play the games. You never know how guys are going to react to playing on the Division I level.
R: The offense is hitting .379 and obviously has been a huge bright spot so far this season. What contributors have really surprised you the most so far this season?
S: I just think the freshman class in general. Cody Regis, Beau Amaral and Cody Keefer have been big-time hitters so far as freshmen. I think Tyler Rahmatulla and Niko Gallego have grown up a lot and seem to be playing with much more confidence. They’re much more physical and we’re getting more production as a result. Catcher Steve Rodriguez is another bright spot. You’re talking about a guy that hit under .200 last season and was completely over matched. He did what he needed to do in the offseason and got stronger and better. Right now he is one of the bigger surprises.
R: Rick Vanderhook obviously has had a huge impact on the offense. What has he done for your program, and what makes him so effective in his teaching?
S: I think Rick is just so brutally honest with these players. The players know exactly what they’re going to get from him each day of the week. He gives them his best effort and they give him their best effort. He continually stays on them and there’s a lot of energy and teaching going on at the practices. They’re having a lot of fun with Rick leading the way. But I also have to give a ton of credit to other assistants, Steve Pearse and P.C. Shaw, too. They also work with the offensive players. As for Vanderhook, he just has a ton of experience and credibility when you look at what he accomplished at Cal State Fullerton over the years. It’s just nice to have Rick and the other coaches on our staff because they’re great and really stay on these guys. This team is responding.
R: Rick has said in the past he wanted to attract some “Fullerton-like” players to UCLA. Do you see a lot of that type of attitude in the younger players on the roster?
S: I see a bunch of great athletes out there. I see runners and I see some versatility. These guys are doing a great job of seeing a lot of pitches at the plate. They have good natural traits and do a nice job of wearing pitchers down. We don’t have a lot of power in the middle of the lineup, but we have a bunch of guys who are similar in their roles. They are gravitating to the team and have helped develop great chemistry. They also are all on the same page offensively. We’ve only played nine games, so we’re still not ready to do any back flips. We’re just trying to get better each day and each time we practice. At the end of the day and year, it doesn’t mean much that we’re off to a hot start. But these guys certainly feel good.
R: Like the offense, the pitching staff also is off to a great start this season. What is your take on the staff so far this season?
S: We’re a year older and we were very young on the mound last season. You look at how many road starts Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer made last season, and it was a lot. That in addition to the struggles of last season really helped those two grow up. Cole and Bauer obviously have pitched very well so far this season. Rob Rasmussen also should be put into that class. He had a ton of success last summer and is throwing much better the past couple of starts. I actually like our bullpen as much as our starters with Dan Klein, Matt Grace and Erik Goeddel leading the way.
R: Speaking of the weekend rotation, is Cole, Bauer and Rasmussen the best rotation you’ve had as a coach? If not, where do you believe the trio ranks?
S: I think it ranks right up there with the rotation I had at USC back in 2000 with Mark Prior, Anthony Reyes and Rik Currier. That was an outstanding pitching staff. It says something about the current rotation because those guys were super talented. In terms of stuff, Cole, Bauer and Rasmussen complement their fastballs with above average secondary pitches. It’s a mental game, too, and they’ll continue to have success if they stay sharp mentally and physically. They continue at the current pace and they will be in great shape at the end of the season.
R: You have to describe Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer to someone who doesn’t know what they’re made of. How would you describe those two?
S: I would say that Cole is a very aggressive guy. He is going to show his emotions on his sleeve. He has done a really good job of backing away from those antics this season. He is so much more mature this season and is taking things from pitch to pitch much better. He seems to be handling opponents and umpires very well. Bauer is just the guy that is his own person. He has a consistent day to day regiment that he follows. He knows his delivery and knows how much he needs to throw. Cole and Bauer are two different guys, but both have a lot of the same qualities as great pitchers. You still have to handle the two very differently. With that said, both know they have room for improvement. They know they need to get better. They haven’t accomplished what they wanted to accomplish when they arrived at UCLA. I think everyone knows they will be pro pitchers. For now, though, they are just striving to be the best they can be at UCLA.
R: There’s no question the program has been criticized a bit the past few seasons. Do you finally get the feeling with the hot start that the program is now on a roll, or are you a little cautious?
S: I think it really helps that we have fantastic team captains in Brett Krill, Matt Grace, Justin Uribe and Dan Klein. Those guys know the program very well and know what good team chemistry looks and feels like. A lot of the credit really goes to our captains and assistant coaches. Our coaches have really done a nice job and put hard work and development into this team. We’re still in the very early stages of the season, though.
R: Everyone talks about the weekend rotation, but closer Dan Klein has done a great job so far this season. What makes him special?
S: It’s impressive that Klein is the best athlete on the team. He was a high school quarterback and had some very good scholarship offers to play football. He also was drafted out of high school. He had an OK freshman campaign and got hurt after that. He is just a guy that throws four pitches for strikes. But he is very competitive and just has a presence about him. He has a lot of confidence. He just seems to control the environment as good as a pitcher possibly can. He has a lot of characteristics as a legitimate closer. He holds runners, he is good off the mound and has an inner confidence that is hard to teach.
R: You have coached pitchers at USC, UC Irvine and now UCLA. Who is the best pitcher you’ve coached?
S: The best pitcher? That is a very tough question. Seth Etherton, Barry Zito, Mark Prior, Brett Smith, Glenn Swanson, David Huff and Hector Ambriz. There are a lot of pitchers that come to mind. I have been blessed to coach some fantastic pitchers, so I can’t really give you just one. All were different in their own way and a lot of them have gone off and done well. Anthony Reyes and Rik Currier are other great arms I’ve coached. The one good thing is that I learn from each great pitcher I coach because each guy is much different.
R: Which coach has had the most influence on your career both on and off the field?
S: I’d say UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie. Mike has been unbelievably good to my family and I. He gave me a great opportunity years ago coming out of Nevada. He put a lot of faith in trusting me because we didn’t even know each other before he hired me. He gave me a lot of responsibility right off the bat. I owe everything to him. He has just been a great teacher and mentor to me in everything that I do. Gary Powers, who is at Nevada, also deserves a wealth of credit for giving me my first opportunity to coach. I owe a ton to Gary for what he did for me, too. As for coach Gillespie, I’ve been in constant contact with him since 1997. I cherish all the times we get to talk.
R: Off the field, you’re a father with a wife and four kids. How do you balance being a dad with being a coach? How difficult is it?
S: Living in Los Angeles and doing both duties is a completely different animal than being anywhere else. I’m on the road a lot and miss out on a lot of things such as games, school events and dances, so that makes things really difficult sometimes. My wife, Lisa, has been unreal in terms of what she has done for our family. She grew up in a coaching family and has had to deal with this type of stuff all of her life. I’m just blessed to have someone like her and have her thoughts. We love being in Southern California and at UCLA. It’s a challenge in terms of raising four kids and being away from them as much as I am, though.
R: Your father-in-law is long-time Nevada football coach Chris Ault. He has been pretty successful. Do you ever get words of wisdom from him?
S: I talk to him a lot, actually. He is another type of guy that is just brutally honest in his approach with his players. That is why he has had a lot of success as a head coach. He talks to me about leadership, day to day stuff and running a program. Our conversations definitely have had an influenced on me as a coach and person. He also has given me advice on how to handle different situations in practices and games. I have a lot of trust in him.
R: You’re in charge of college baseball. What is your first order of business?
S: I still would like to have a few more weeks added on to the front end of the schedule. I like the initial start date, but the current schedule setup is tough on the quarter schools. It’s difficult because we’re playing the front end and back end during finals, and still are trying to play a 56-game schedule with four or five games per week. It’s just too hard on the pitching and academic side of things. Trying to play several games in a week really puts the student-athlete in jeopardy. I’d like to give the players a little more time to play 56 games.