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Decker, UCLA Seek National Baseball Honors:

This is the Mirror’s annual piece featuring Cody Decker, who deserves such recognition as he has progressed from the Santa Monica Little League to heroics at Santa Monica High and now to his junior year at UCLA.

He is an athlete who had the lead role in The Music Man at Samohi and is currently enjoying college life in preparation for an anticipated professional baseball career.

Decker led the Bruins in home runs last season with 14 and batted .307. This season, as UCLA went 10-9 in its first 19 games he homered three times and established himself as coach John Savage’s Designated Hitter. Decker then hit his fourth homer Saturday, March 28 in a conference win at Arizona.

The story of this UCLA season as compared to the last two is the national perception of the team. UCLA was up-and-becoming as Savage steadily built up a program that had been dormant before his arrival. Now UCLA is no longer an underdog. It was ranked No. 1 in America in one pre-season poll, No. 3 in another, and has been picked to win the Pac-10 even though a conference member, Oregon State, has won the national championship the last two years.

Decker is one of a half dozen prized returnees. The list includes second baseman Alden Carrithers, a .405 hitter through the non-conference portion of the schedule, shortstop Brandon Crawford, third baseman Jermaine Curtis, and pitcher Tim Murphy.

One service rates Crawford and Murphy among its top six most likely choices in the next baseball draft.

In Savage’s fourth year in Westwood he has a team with 25 returning players from a squad that advanced to UCLA’s first Super Regional since 2000.

That advancement is one step away from the College World Series, in which the nation’s eight best teams play for the national championship. Having lost to Cal State Fullerton last season, UCLA’s goal is not only to reach a Super Regional again but to win it.

I have vivid memories of Decker’s Samohi days. One memory is a home run he blasted far over the left field fence. On a short hop it reached the gymnasium a long, long way away.

A college coach at the game asked what I thought of Decker, who had been a third baseman and had switched to being a catcher for his senior season. I think the coach was concerned about what Decker’s college position would be.

I couldn’t answer questions about Decker’s defense but pointed out the young man had power rarely seen in a high school player. And I had no doubt that Decker would continue to make life miserable for opposing pitchers at the next level.

The coach in question didn’t show further interest in Decker but Savage did. And that says a lot about the UCLA coach’s ability to evaluate talent.

Decker has played first base adequately at UCLA and he’s done more than hit for power. He’s had some key singles and walks to advance rallies and made a memorable hook slide to score a run in a big win over USC, a maneuver that prompted former Samohi coach Kevin Brockway to emphasize that Decker is a ballplayer who finds ways to win.

Several of UCLA’s top players are juniors and may turn pro after this season. Savage is prepared, having signed another outstanding batch of players for next season.

But the season in progress now is the focal point. UCLA is good. The question is how good?

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