All season long, UCLA baseball coach John Savage has stressed “sticking to the process.” When things don’t go right for the Bruins, Savage demands that his team not panic and stay calm.
It was nothing new on Saturday when UCLA played small ball, using two sacrifice flies, a squeeze bunt and a passed ball to methodically beat TCU 4-1 to punch its ticket to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. for the fourth time in school history. UCLA remained undefeated as it did not lose a game in either the regional or super regional.
“We chipped away,” Savage said. “We don’t blow anyone out. We hung around. We made everything count.”
While the Bruins’ offense was manufacturing runs, their pitchers were keeping TCU’s (40-22) offense from generating base runners. The Horned Frogs’ only source of runs in the super regional were solo home runs.
“We’re not a power hitting team,” sophomore shortstop Pat Valaika said. “Our game plan is to wear pitchers down. We work really hard to pass the baton and get the next guy to the plate. It worked tonight and it’s worked all season.”
UCLA started the season picked fourth in the Pac-12 and ranked in the mid-20s. With an RPI and strength of schedule in the top five, the No. 2 Bruins worked their way through a difficult non-conference slate that featured playoff teams Baylor and Purdue.
They went on to handle a grueling Pac-12 slate – one that featured five playoff teams – on their way to winning a share the regular season conference championship for the second straight season.
“To come out of the west is one of the hardest things in college baseball to do,” Savage said. “It never gets old. It’s like going to the biggest bowl game or the Final Four. It’s the epitome of college baseball to go to the middle of the country in the middle of June.”
The trek to the Midwest will be the the Bruins’ second in three years as they came up just short of a national championship in 2010, losing to South Carolina in the College World Series final. Six of UCLA’s nine position players were on that team as freshmen.
“That junior class is special and it will go down as one of the best classes in the history of the school,” said Savage, whose team does not have a senior on the roster. “It says a lot about their character and their leadership.”
Oddly enough, UCLA’s (47-14) off year came last season when it had two top-five draft picks in its starting rotation. This year, an improved offensive attack coupled with solid starting pitching and consistency from the bullpen combined to send the Bruins back to the mecca of college baseball.
“We had good chemistry my freshman year and this team is very similar,” junior infielder Trevor Brown said. “We all get along. We have great starting pitching and a great lineup. We feel very blessed to be going back to Omaha.”
Savage is quick to note, however, that these are not the 2010 Bruins. It’s a more mature, more confident group of juniors, six of which were drafted during the first two days of this week’s MLB draft.
“This team has a new identity,” Savage said. “We’re going to be going to Omaha with ‘Bruins’ on our chest but this is a different roster.”