There is a benefit to hosting a college baseball playoff regional that extends far beyond playing in front of the home crowd and sleeping in the warm, comfortable bed and getting Mom and Dad in for the game.
When UCLA gets its allotted one hour of practice time to gear up for its game one matchup against Kent State – scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday at Jackie Robinson Stadium – the Bruins won’t have to learn the grass and the dirt and the dugouts.
With a 24-9 record at home, they know it pretty well already.
“It’s our field – we’re the ones who take care of it in the Fall, we’re the ones who practice on it every day,” said Sunday starter Rob Rasmussen, who went 9-2 with a 2.89 ERA for the 43-13 Bruins. “When we were at Fullerton, and obviously we played there during the year, but you’re trying to find out how the ball is playing. (Now) that hour of practice isn’t sitting figuring out how the ball ricochets off the wall or what the backstop is like. We know this. This is our field.”
Surprisingly, UCLA had its low point of the season on that field.
What followed, though, is what led the Bruins to a No. 6 seed in the field of 64, they maintain.
After an 8-7 stretch followed a 22-game winning streak to start the season – leading to a No. 1-ranking in the country at one point – UCLA dropped three straight to eventual Pac-10 champion Arizona State. The Sun Devils, seeded No. 1 in the playoffs, won the three games by a combined 23-5 in that early May series.
Since then, though, the Bruins have gone 13-3, including 11-1 in the ultra-competitive Pac-10, which is sending eight teams to the playoffs.
“We take a lot of pride in playing in the Pac-10,” said starting pitcher Gerrit Cole, who bring his 9-2 record and 124 strikeouts to the mound Friday against the Golden Flashes. “It’s typically an underrated conference. The SEC and ACC get talked about a lot. West Coast baseball, style of play, hard-nosed scrappiness makes every game we play in the Pac-10 just as competitive. You can’t take any team for granted, you can’t take any game for granted.”
But conference play is over now, and it’s time to shift into tournament mode.
With an abundance of pitching – particularly in a phenomenal starting rotation that ranks among the best, if not the best, in the country – UCLA head coach John Savage thought long and hard about the strategy that goes into the short tournament. The Bruins’ regional matchup is considered the toughest by many, with defending national champion LSU and UC Irvine joining Kent State in Los Angeles.
Savage tabbed Cole to start late Wednesday afternoon, choosing the Friday starter over fast-rising midweek man Garett Claypool, who leads the team with a 2.05 ERA and .171 batting average against.
“I don’t have really any preference,” Cole said, when asked when he wanted to pitch. “I just want to pitch as soon as I can I guess. That’s the same for everyone. Everyone in this circumstance wants the ball. Our staff is definitely one of the best in the country. We have confidence in our guys to go any day of the week. We really mean it. Nobody’s panicking. I think that’s the least of our worries.”
There is one worry: Capitalizing on the regular-season success.
“You look at Stanford, one of the richest-tradition programs in the country, and they haven’t won a national championship since 1988,” Savage said. “It’s so tough to get out of the West. It’s tough to get to Omaha. It’s been proven year after year. I know between Glaus and Utley and Byrnes and back to Chris Chambliss and Jeff Conine, you’re talking about a rich, rich tradition. I don’t know why we haven’t gone to Omaha more.
“We have to knock the door down and get to the next step.”
Good thing for UCLA, the first door is at its own house.