Rasmussen's In Rhythm For UCLA

Among the UCLA baseball team Rob Rasmussen has a reputation as the guy to beat in video games and fantasy baseball.

"He likes to win," Bruins ace Gerrit Cole said. "At everything. He's just crushing in our fantasy league. He does all the research. He looks up all the numbers. He does everything he can to win."

Rasmussen hasn't been much easier to beat on the mound this season. A boost in confidence to go along with four quality pitches made the junior lefthander a valuable part of a UCLA team that won its first 22 games of the season. He's also seen his stock soar for the upcoming draft just a year after he struggled enough to be demoted to the Bruins' bullpen.

"He's getting a lot of attention," UCLA coach John Savage said. "It's hard to say exactly, but he'll be one of the first lefthanders drafted in the country. Probably within the first five lefties taken."

Not to be outdone by the Bruins' highly touted sophomore starters Cole and Trevor Bauer, Rasmussen opened the season 6-0 as the Sunday starter. He enters this weekend's series at California ranked 14th in the nation in strikeouts per nine innings (11.36), and he is 7-2, 3.15 with 90 strikeouts and 23 walks in 71 innings overall.

"I think he's a top-three-round talent," a National League scout said.

This is Rasmussen's first full collegiate season as a starter. He missed nearly 10 weeks of his freshman season after suffering a broken foot on a line-drive comebacker in his first game. He made six starts as a sophomore before a 6.75 ERA helped prompt a move to the bullpen for the remainder of the season.

His fortune turned last summer in the Cape Cod League. He started the league's all-star game at Fenway Park and ranked in the league's top 10 with a 1.80 ERA.

"It was huge," Rasmussen said of the summer. "I struggled a lot last year. I went there and tried not to do too much, worked on some things. I had some success there and it made me realize, 'This is some of the best competition in the country. I just need to keep doing what I'm doing here.' "

What he did was improve the command of his fastball, which sits ranges from 89-93 mph, and start using his changeup more.

"And going after hitters and attacking 'em for an entire at-bat," Rasmussen said. "It used to be I'd get two strikes and waste a couple pitches. Now it doesn't matter if it's 2-and-2 or 0-and-2, I'm going after them and trying to finish 'em off right there. It's really cut down on my pitch counts and helped me go deeper into games.

"The biggest change would be just the mindset of trying to attack people, knowing my best can beat their best."

Savage agrees.

"Confidence," The coach said of the biggest difference from a year ago. "Last year he was inconsistent. He just didn't have the belief he belonged here. At times he was dominant, at times he struggled.

"He's a guy when he gets into a rhythm and has a feel for three or four pitches, he's tough to beat. When he throws strikes, he's as good as anyone I've coached."

Savage, including his time as Southern California's pitching coach and UC Irvine's head coach, has produced 13 major league pitchers. He believes someday he'll be able to add Rasmussen to that list.

"I think he can pitch in the major leagues," Savage said. "He's got four pitches. When he commands them all, he's difficult to deal with. He's got a special arm."

The pros agree.

"He's got a good arm," said a scout. "He's got a loose arm. The ball comes out of his hand well. He has a very good breaking ball . . . He knows how to compete. He's very competitive. There's a lot I like about him."

This isn't the first time Rasmussen has caught scouts' attention. The Dodgers drafted him in the 27th round in 2007 after a decorated career at Pasadena Poly High that was capped with a spot on Baseball America's All-America third team. He'd posted a 0.33 ERA and 200 strikeouts with just 34 walks in 86 innings as a senior. Savage was on hand when Rasmussen recorded 20 strikeouts in a game and says, "you knew he was pretty special."

But Rasmussen had made it clear he was going to college. If his family's emphasis on education combined with attending a small private school known for academic achievement wasn't enough to push Rasmussen toward college, there was the lesson learned from his uncle. Neil Rasmussen was the 12th overall selection in the 1971 draft, but never reached the majors.

"His biggest regret was he went straight out of high school and never had anything else to fall back on," said Rob, a pre business-economics major. "That was one thing I learned from him.

"This was the right decision. I think I've matured a lot since high school."

Scouts would still like to see the fastball command with more regularity, and some shy away because of his size (he's listed as 5-foot-11, 170 pounds).

But Rasmussen isn't out to make a statement. His goals for the season were modest.

"Honestly, my expectations were to make sure we won as many Sunday games as possible," Rasmussen said. "I'm not going to try to put up ungodly numbers like Bauer and Cole."

The Bruins have been plenty happy to settle for outings such as Rasmussen's performance against Oregon State in which he held the Beavers to six hits and two runs with eight strikeouts in seven innings to clinch the series win.

"Those are the times your jaw just drops," Cole said. "He's not a physical specimen and he's just cutting through the lineup.

"At times he's the most fun pitcher on our team to watch."