Feb. 11, 2011

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Rahmatulla ready for return with Bruins

By Sean Ryan

CollegeBaseballInsider.com Co-Founder

sean@collegebaseballinsider.com @collbaseball

(In our first version of this story, the statistics for Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer were switched. Charge CBI with an error. CBI regrets the mistake.)

Few moments last season in college baseball can match the high and low of Tyler Rahmatulla.


One day, UCLA’s second baseman delivered possibly the biggest hit in school history. Trailing Cal State Fullerton 6-5 with two outs in the top of the ninth, Rahmatulla ripped a two-run homer that kept the Bruins’ season alive and helped them even their Super Regional series with the Titans.


The very next day, Rahmatulla and the Bruins earned their third trip to the College World Series by beating the Titans and celebrated with a customary dogpile. Rahmatulla suffered a broken wrist in the celebration and was forced to watch his teammates fall in the CWS championship series to South Carolina from the dugout.


“It was pretty awesome to be out there in Omaha,” said Rahmatulla, who put together a splendid sophomore season in helping UCLA reach Omaha for the first time since 1997. “I was still a little frustrated, but I was ready to cheer on my teammates.


 “You definitely see a lot of things that you don’t normally see when you’re playing. I was just dying to be out there.”


With opening day for some 10,000 Division I college baseball players a week away, Rahmatulla might be the most excited player in the country.


Due to his freak injury at Super Regionals, the former prep star at Mater Dei High School in Mission Viejo, Calif., was unable to return to the Chatham Angels of the Cape Cod League over the summer. Upon his return to the diamond for fall practice – the first day in fact – Rahmatulla tried to make a throw on the run and landed awkwardly on his left foot. He felt a pop that turned out to be a broken fifth metatarsal in his foot and required surgery and 10 more weeks off the baseball field.


When Rahmatulla steps to the plate in the middle of the Bruins’ lineup next Friday, it will be his first truly meaningful at-bat in nearly eight months.


“I’m pretty amped up right now,” Rahmatulla said. “I’m really looking forward to next Friday.”


As are the Bruins.


Led by a pitching staff that boasts two of the preeminent starters in college baseball in Trevor Bauer (12-3, 3.02, 165 Ks in 131.1 IP) and Gerrit Cole (11-4, 3.37, 153 Ks in 123 IP) – and their battery-mate, Steve Rodriguez, one of the best defensive catchers in the Pac-10 – and a lineup that includes the likes of Rahmatulla (.328/7/45), Bo Amaral (.354/4/31), Dean Espy (.345/9/52) and Cody Regis (.312/9/47) and UCLA has the makings of a squad destined for Omaha.


But with the Pac 10 predicted to be as strong or even stronger than last year, the Bruins know a visit to the new TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha can’t be planned in February.


“We kind of know we have a target on our back,” Rahmatulla said. “We want to play with that target on our back and come out and play our best every day.”


Added coach John Savage: “We are quite aware of the target and the expectations of this year’s team. We are embracing it and working hard every day to get better as a team. Playing in the Pac-10 and on the West Coast, every year presents a tremendous challenge. Getting to Omaha from the West is quite an accomplishment for any team out here.”


As a freshman, Rahmatulla started 23 games and appeared in 35, batting only .222. Hits were hard to come by when he played for Chatham in the Cape, where he only hit .101 in 27 games.


Yet, Rahmatulla learned a lot from his Cape experience, like the importance of coming to the ballpark with a positive attitude and having the mentality to be confident in yourself and staying locked in.


“I really learned how to deal with failure out there,” he said. 


Which may have helped when his 2010 season ended prematurely.


“Tyler was a team guy all the way through; he was with us every pitch in Omaha,” Savage said. “Very unfortunate injury, but he made an impact in the dugout. Tyler was a major reason we were playing in Omaha.”


After all, one day before the injury, Rahmatulla stepped to the plate with his team down a run and down to its last out to Cal State Fullerton.


“What’s overlooked was that Blair Dunlap drew a two-out walk,” said Rahmatulla, a sociology major. “His at-bat gets overlooked a lot.”


Rahmatulla remembers assistant coach Rick Vanderhook, who spent 21 seasons as an assistant at Cal State Fullerton, telling him “We’re all going to die someday, just take that mentality…be aggressive.”


Rahmatulla got ahead in the count 3-1 and “was aggressive,” depositing the offering well over the wall in left-center for a 7-6 lead. The Bruins went on to win 11-7 in 10 innings then beat the Titans again a day later to advance to the College World Series.


“That was the greatest moment of my life, just to be able to pull through for my teammates,” Rahmatulla said. “That’s what we talked about all year. Just getting the next Bruin to the plate.”


Over the summer, the first summer he couldn’t play baseball or surf in about as long as he can remember, Rahmatulla watched replays of his dramatic homer every now and then.


“It’s in the past, and that’s behind us and take care of what we have today,” he said as he talked about the 2011 season.


Today is here, and Rahmatulla couldn’t be more excited.


(photos courtesy of UCLA Media Relations Office)