OMAHA, Neb. — The magic started on June 1, nearly a month before UCLA found itself playing for a national title.
In the second game of the Los Angeles Regional, the Bruins faced down a four-run deficit against Cal Poly. They weathered an uneven start from sixth-round pick Nick Vander Tuig, spoiled the Mustangs’ no-hit bid and won 6-4.
The way it happened — the friendly bounces, the fly ball that swam into the lights and became a triple — only reinforced their inner faith.
“We kind of had a feeling there like, ‘Hey, this is getting going,’” sophomore closer David Berg said. “We had a bit of a refuse-to-lose attitude. That’s really when we started gaining a lot more confidence.”
It’s worked. UCLA (47-17) has made the College World Series in three of the past four years, but this latest run has been the most remarkable. No one on the roster hits above .283. For the first time since 2009, no Bruin was taken on the first day of the MLB draft.
Yet the team enters a best-of-three championship series against Mississippi State at 5 p.m. PT Monday riding its longest winning streak of the season. Not bad for a program returned that lost the top five hitters from last year’s CWS team.
Weeks ago, coach John Savage had said that these Bruins didn’t truly find themselves until the latter portion of conference play. They’ve since shown him they had even more to give, reeling off nine straight wins — eight in the postseason.
“This team has an edge to it,” said Savage, who has molded the team to his pitching and defensive philosophies. In doing so, the ninth-year skipper has put himself wins away from his first title as a head coach.
UCLA hasn’t lost since dropping two games against Stanford in their final regular-season series. The Bruins have two All-Pac-12 starters in Vander Tuig and Adam Plutko who are tailor-made for TD Ameritrade Park’s big outfields. Both are well rested for starts on Monday and Tuesday.
Anchored by a defense that includes shortstop Pat Valaika, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, the team has embraced its grind-it-out style. UCLA is 17-2 in one-run games.
Seeded No. 2 a year ago, the Bruins left Omaha with just one victory. For returning players, that memory still offers fuel.
“It feels like we’re a lot more focused on actually winning the national championship,” said Berg. “Last year, it felt like we were going to come out and play hard, but the preparation wasn’t as good. Once we got to Omaha, we were kind of satisfied.”
Added senior Cody Regis, the lone Bruin to have been a part of the team’s last three Omaha trips: “We know we haven’t done anything. We’re still hungry. We know what we came here for.”
The Bulldogs (51-18) know too. UCLA has never won an NCAA baseball championship, but Mississippi State does not have a Division I title in any sport. Coach John Cohen guided his squad, also unseeded nationally, past No. 3 Oregon State to its first-ever 3-0 start in the CWS. Mississippi State’s .297 batting average looks good, but is also buoyed by a late-season surge. It has an impressive stellar 2.75 staff ERA.
In short, the Bulldogs look a little like the Bruins.
“We’re not the most physical team,” Savage said. “We don’t have the biggest throwers. We don’t have the highest drafts. It’s more of a blue-collar team. …
“At the end of the day, I think baseball purists appreciate that type of baseball.”