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(photo by Maya Sugarman)

UCLA — Cody Decker finally has a reason to smile.

The UCLA senior first baseman and power hitter just finished his final season with the Bruins with a disappointing 27-29 record, and without a playoff berth, but Decker, who led the Pac-10 in home runs with 21 on the season, is expected to be drafted into the major leagues this week.

The former Samohi catcher and first baseman is not at all unfamiliar with the MLB Draft or the rollercoaster of emotions that comes along with declaring.

“I hear things, but I’ve heard things every year I’ve been draft eligible,” Decker said. “No one has said to me, specifically, round or money. I figure that’s just the case. I’m taking everything with a grain of salt.”

Decker, who declared for the draft after his senior season in Santa Monica and following his junior season at UCLA, has yet to receive his call.

While most players of his caliber are drafted after their third year of college, Cody’s junior season was not one that warranted attention.

During the 2008 season, Decker hit .218, the lowest during his UCLA career, and at the exact time he needed to be on top of his game.

“It was awful,” he said. “Once I started slumping I got depressed, and it was like quicksand; it kept getting worse and worse and worse. The next thing you know I’m having the worst season of my entire baseball life.”

Decker attributes the poor performance to a number of factors including the opinions of professional scouts, which he said added unneeded pressure and affected his mentality at the plate.

But this year, with the pressure off, Decker has thrived.

He finished the season batting .322 with slugging percentage and RBI figures that are nearly double what they were a year ago.

“Somebody will give Cody a job,” said Matt Hattabaugh, area scout for the Colorado Rockies, adding that this year’s draft is weak, which he said is good for Decker.

But Decker wasn’t able to turn his hitting around overnight.

At the end of the 2008 season he opted to stay home from summer ball and train at UCLA for the coming season, working closely with assistant coach Rick Vanderhook, a recent addition to the Bruin coaching staff.

“I got my head back in place,” Decker said of the summer training. “Coach Vanderhook and I really clicked. I really liked how he went about his business.”

Decker explained that Vanderhook’s coaching style includes a lot of criticism and very few compliments, but at this point, he can handle the heat.

Now, with all the pieces together, Decker has been preparing himself for the transition into professional ball, a switch that his teammates and coaches think he is prepared to handle.

“He’s a complete hitter,” said UCLA coach John Savage. “He’s more than a guy who can hit the ball out of the park. You talk about a guy who has four years experience in the Pac-10; he saw first round pitching. I think he’s going to do well.”

Savage explained that Decker’s experience in the Pac-10 and at UCLA will give him a leg up on some of the other players he’ll face in the minor leagues, citing Decker’s ability to prepare for opponents and to bounce back from tough losses among the traits that will help him in the near future.

“Throughout his career at UCLA, Cody had made a lot of adjustments,” said Brent Dean, a graduate assistant for the UCLA baseball team and a former teammate of Decker’s. “Any transition to the next level is going to be OK for him. The guy is just a workhorse and I think he’ll be able to handle the switch to professional ball fine.”

But with so much emphasis on his ability to hit the ball, the question arises as to where he will find a place on defense.

“He’s a bit more versatile than people give him credit for,” Savage said. “Catching could be part of his future; he’s capable of doing that.”

Decker said that his hopes are still high for getting picked up by either the Dodgers or the Red Sox, his two favorite teams growing up, but he added that he would be thrilled to play anywhere at this point.

Even still, Decker said he feels blessed to have grown up in Santa Monica, and said he’ll miss it if he doesn’t end up playing in Los Angeles.

“I’ve probably played more games at Jackie Robinson [Stadium] than anyone else ever. I am very familiar with that place. It’s like a home to me,” Decker said, reminiscing on his years in little league when he would come to watch UCLA play and steal homerun balls during batting practice. “I just grew up here. I’ve had my share of fun at UCLA. I’ve had a great time, but it’s time to move on.”

Despite the likely change in location, Decker said there’s one thing he will never change.

Since little league, Decker has coined a lengthy pre-bat ritual, complete with a bit of bat wiggling and six hard stomps.

“I’m the first to admit it is just the dumbest, most ridiculous thing in the world but I do it every single at bat, and I’m not stopping,” he said. “If I get up there, I’m doing it in the bigs and I can’t wait for everyone to make fun of it.”

Given Samohi’s proud tradition of parental involvement on the baseball field, a profile of Decker would not be complete without a few words from his mom.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled and more proud,” she said of the impending draft. “Going pro is something he has worked for his whole life. He has literally wanted this since he was 2 years old, and I know a lot of kids want it, but he has worked at it since he was two. We just want his dream to come true.”

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