Last season should have been Kevin Kramer's third with the UCLA baseball team. The Turlock native and former Turlock Bulldog was supposed to be the Bruins' third baseman and one of their more consistent hitters. Instead, Kramer was forced to redshirt his junior year as he underwent shoulder surgery and had to watch as his team experienced a losing season with an overall record of 25-30-1 and a Pac-12 record of 12-18.
I spoke with Kramer on Thursday morning, fresh out of a rehab session, to talk about his return to the diamond, the state of his health and his expectations for 2015.
You're back on the diamond for the Bruins after missing last year due to shoulder surgery. How is the shoulder feeling and how does it feel to be back in action with your team?
“It's awesome to be back on the field. The shoulder, it's coming along well. I'm still not 100 percent, but I'm good enough to play. Like I said earlier, it's awesome to be back out there. You never really know— it's kind of the old adage: You never really know what you had until it's gone. Definitely awesome to be out there and I'm having a lot of fun with the guys, and we have a really good team this year. So it's a really fun experience so far.”
How did you sustain your injury in the first place?
“It's one of those things that just built up over time. There was never one throw, there was never one dive. You know, there was never a separation. It was just kind of wear and tear on the shoulder and it caught up to me eventually.”
What has been the most difficult part of your rehabilitation process?
“There's been two tough parts. Obviously the month in the sling and having to deal with that. And then once I got cleared to throw after six months, the first month of throwing was pretty painful, just trying to get everything loosened up. When they go in there for the labrum surgery and tighten everything up, you kind of got to break up the scar tissue. Those different months, they were probably the toughest times. But you know, you've got to go through some pain to get better, right?”
How difficult was it to miss last season, especially considering the amount of success you and your team experienced the year before?
“I mean it wasn't easy. It was definitely one of the hardest things I've had to go through, but I didn't really have a choice. You just have to go through it and learn as much as you can. I think what I learned from last year is playing out this year, as far as my play. I watched a lot of games last year so I got to see the game in a different light and I think that's been helping so far this year, too.”
For those who don't know, UCLA won its first National Championship in 2013 with you at third base. You were also an integral part of the offense, finishing second on the team with a .278 batting average on the season and a .250 batting average in the college world series. Now that you’re back, how does this year's team stack up to the championship winning team of two seasons ago?
“I definitely think they're different teams. I think there's a lot of qualities in this team that the championship team had as well. I don't want to say this year's team is more talented, but I think that would probably be a fair evaluation of this team because there is a lot of talent on this team. There's a lot of different characters. I think this team works really hard. Some qualities that we share with the championship team is that we're kind of a grin-it-it-out team. Not flashy, doesn't always look good, but we find a way to win. That's what's important when the day's done.
You're currently hitting .410 in 105 at bats. That percentage increases to .459 when you only factor in Pac-12 play. What do you attribute your ability to bounce back and perform at a high level to?
“Honestly, I've always been a pretty big stat guy throughout my career, but this year one thing that's changed is I haven't looked at the stats. When you say those stats I don't pay a whole lot of attention to them. I'm not saying that's helped me, but it's weird because I think going through the injury and coming back this year, I'm way more focused on being back on the field and having fun on the field rather than how I'm playing. And I think that's kind of freed me up to just kind of go out there and play and let the body take over and not worry about my stats and not worry about if I'm getting hits. It's just a different perspective. Coming back from last year, not being able to play last year, I appreciate it a lot more. So I'm not too worried about how I'm hitting or what's going on, it's more about having fun and being relaxed on the field and enjoying it with my teammates.”
Can you share with us the team's mentality for this season? What are UCLA's goals and what are you eying as a mission this year?
“Every year, going into a program like the one that we have, we've established ourselves as one of the top-three or top-five programs in the nation the last few years. Every year our mission is to win a National Championship. That's never changed, even with last year. We had a down year, but our mission was still to win a National Championship. Obviously we didn't do that, we did that the year before, but this year going into it is a different feel. We didn't have a lot of success last year and it was kind of an odd feeling because we had a couple of pretty successful years back-to-back. This year our mission is to still win the National Championship, we're still working for that every day — still working to be the best team that we can possibly be at the end of the season. I think going through what we did last year, our team is pretty hungry to get back to the level we have been. I don't want to say we're surprising people, but not a lot of people expected this out of us because of the bad season we had last year. For the most part we're a hungry team, we're motivated, we know that last year was not the team that was really our team. We were plagued by injuries, obviously, and we're motivated to get back to Omaha and we're motivated to get back to the National Championship for sure.”
Is there anything else you'd like to add or share with your fans from Turlock?
“I just want to say thank you. I don't get to come home a lot. If I'm not in L.A. I'm somewhere playing summer ball, or last summer I was down here rehabbing all summer. So I just want to say thank you to all the fans. I appreciate the support because if it wasn't for them I wouldn't be where I am today. I cannot stress how important it is to have a home base like Turlock to come home to. To be with my family, to be with my friends and to see people that I played baseball with and their parents, to whatever it may be. While Turlock is a small town it's played a huge part in my life. It's part of who I am and why I'm doing what I'm doing, so I just want to say thank you.”