John Savage sat in front of the press late Saturday night and insisted that Cal State Fullerton, the team whose season he’d just ended, was still the best in the country.
“People may not believe me,” the UCLA coach allowed.
Savage had paid the Titans the same compliment before sweeping them in two games — putting the Bruins in the College World Series for the third time in four years. CSUF had entered the weekend with a top-five ERA, top-25 fielding percentage and top-50 home run total. It had lost back-to-back games only once all season, and never dropped a series.
Since the Super Regional format was added in 1999, no team has reached the College World Series more times than Fullerton’s seven. Now the Titans have missed four straight, their longest drought since they first went to Omaha in 1975.
In that same timeframe, only 14 teams had reached Omaha in back-to-back seasons. With 5-3 and 3-0 wins, UCLA became the 15th.
“This weekend they were about right in everything they did,” said Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook, the Bruins’ top assistant during their 2010 run to the national title series.
UCLA is far from a perfect team, but it’s a disciplined one built on pitching and defense. To clinch a spot in Omaha — on the road at Fullerton, no less — the Bruins avoided mistakes and took advantage of their opponents’. On Friday night, the Titans left two potential double plays on the field. On Saturday, they gifted UCLA with three unearned runs — making two errors in the first inning and squandering an impressive eight-inning start from freshman Thomas Eshelman.
Missing the big bats they had a year ago, when they were the Pac-12’s second-best hitting team, the Bruins have built found their identity as a team that forces close games and squeezes out timely runs.
“I couldn’t be any prouder of our program,” Savage said. “We just formed. We just bonded. We became a team a couple of weeks ago.”
Will it be enough next weekend? Super Regional hosts such as No. 2 Vanderbilt and No. 7 Florida State have also been eliminated, but UCLA’s first opponent at TD Ameritrade will be hard-hitting LSU. Seeded No. 4 nationally, the Tigers clinched their spot with an 11-1 dismantling of Oklahoma.
Perhaps the Bruins’ bats will heat up. Perhaps Omaha will smile on them. Regardless, UCLA baseball is clearly in the midst of its most historic stretch.
“It’s been a fun three years,” said junior Nick Vander Tuig, who tossed 6 1/3 scoreless innings Saturday and will likely leave campus as sixth-round draft pick. “Not many people can say they’ve been to Omaha two out of the three years they’ve been in college.”
Added Savage: “I think that’s also a culmination of us doing things right for a long time.”