UCLA outfielder Eric Filia (Don Liebig/UCLA Athletics)


Filia Rakes Again After Long Layoff

Eric Filia has always hit. Way back in 2008, when he was just a freshman at Huntington Beach’s Edison High School, he hit .500 to tie a single-season school record held by Jeff Kent. He finished his high school career ranked seventh on the California high school career hits list. He hit .294 as a rising freshman against older competition in the West Coast League, and he led the Northwoods League with a .383 average as a rising sophomore in 2012. He hit .282 as a sophomore right fielder in 2013 and was UCLA’s best hitter during its run to the College World Series championship, leading the team with a .333 average and eight RBIs in Omaha.

So it’s hardly surprising that the first thing Filia did after a two-year layoff was get a hit on the first pitch he saw back in the Northwoods League this summer. And he kept on hitting, because that’s what Filia does. He wound up playing 70 games between the long regular season and the playoffs, hitting .342 with six homers, 17 doubles and 58 RBIs in 281 at-bats to help lead Kenosha to the Northwoods championship. He struck out just 16 times and drew 31 walks.

“Look at his walks this summer,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “Look at his strikeouts. Sixteen strikeouts? I mean, you’re talking about a guy that hasn’t played in two years. I think this summer proved that he was clearly in baseball shape. If you can hit, you can hit, and I don’t think there’s any doubting his ability to hit. Most guys that take that much time off have a period of adjustment in timing and rhythm. To do what he did to that league really says a lot about his ability to play and hit at that level.”

Filia’s two-year detour has been very trying, but he is stronger and wiser for going through it. Right before the NCAA tournament began in 2013, he injured his shoulder. He played through it in the postseason, and then he went to the Cape Cod League for a couple of weeks — he had seen the movie “Summer Catch” and was determined to get a taste of the Cape League experience. But the injury ended his summer early, and he spent the fall doing physical therapy to try to avoid surgery.

But just before the 2014 season began, Filia faced the reality that he would need labrum surgery, causing him to miss the entire spring. Combined with injuries to fellow veterans Kevin Kramer and Kevin Williams, Filia’s injury played a big role in causing UCLA to miss the postseason that spring.

“It was a major blow, and we never recovered that year with the loss of those guys,” Savage said. “He was coming into his own — there’s no question he was coming into his own. He really performed in the regional and the super regionals, and of course in Omaha. We thought he was going to have a monster junior year, and then he gets hurt and doesn’t play. Then he had the academic issue — he basically disappeared for two years.”

The “academic issue” was a mistake that cost Filia all of the 2015 season, after he had worked to put himself back in physical shape to return to the field. He was suspended for the entire season after plagiarizing a quote in a paper for his philosophy class.

“It’s humbling. It was very unfortunate, but you can’t really take those shortcuts because it doesn’t matter who you are — if you’re an athlete or not. You need to do the work right,” Filia said. “You’re a student before you’re an athlete. I learned from what I did. It was a big mistake that I made, but I couldn’t be more thankful to have the opportunity to come back to UCLA and just finish out there and get a degree. I told my coach when he called me and gave me back my scholarship that I was just very grateful.”

A lot of players would have transferred to an NAIA school, where they could play immediately and try to boost their draft stock — especially as fourth-year juniors. But given the nature of his suspension, you might be surprised to learn that Filia was dedicated to his UCLA education, and he wanted to stay in Westwood.

UCLA outfielder Eric Filia (Don Liebig/UCLA Athletics)UCLA outfielder Eric Filia (Don Liebig/UCLA Athletics)

“I think there’s bigger things than baseball in your future. You need to get your degree. Education really comes first to me,” Filia said. “When I went out to UCLA as a freshman in high school, they toured me around campus and I just fell in love with it. Just knowing the whole UCLA pedigree and getting the degree from there, it’s something very special and it’s an honor. So I think it’s really huge; yeah, I didn’t play, but it would be huge for my family if I got a degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the country, or the world.”

When Filia speaks, he comes across as mature, humble and quietly confident. He has been a positive force in the UCLA clubhouse in the past, and chances are he will be again in 2016. But his reacclimation into the chemistry of the team won’t happen overnight.

“He seemed to be very dedicated to coming back, and there’s something to be said about wanting to play for your team,” Savage said. “I think he’s got to earn that respect back with the team itself. I think he felt that he let some people down. We clearly were not happy with him. So I think there’ll be a little time of adjustment. It’s almost like getting a recruit as part of this class, a substantial impact bat that gives us another piece we think will be a major contributor this year.”

And there’s reason to believe Filia will be even better now than he was before. He performed at a high level in a very good summer league this year despite still not being quite 100 percent — he said he’s about 90 percent now. He said he changed up his stance a little bit this summer to improve his rhythm, and the adjustment paid off. He also has improved his conditioning.

“Taking off these last two years, I’ve really come to realize that I need to get a lot stronger, so I’ve been trying to put on a couple more pounds and get a little more power back,” Filia said. “So I’m really trying to get better, really try to know my position, understand that whatever I can do to help me in the long run will eventually help with whoever I’m playing with.

“I’m very excited. These last two years were very humbling, but I’m itching to just get out there and play and be in Jackie Robinson Stadium. I was just there a couple days ago, and I’m just standing at home plate looking around and I’m like, ‘Holy smokes. How awesome is it to be back here?’ I just can’t wait to have that experience to be back on the field with a bunch of great teammates. I couldn’t be any more grateful.”

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