UCLA baseball finally adds hardware to national championship trophy case
OMAHA, Neb. -– One can understand if UCLA baseball has felt like a little brother through the years. Its school had captured 108 national titles in everything from men’s basketball to women’s water polo. But a baseball title somehow always fell out of reach.
That all changed this year with one of the most dominant five-game pitching performances Omaha has ever seen. And now UCLA baseball finally has a seat at the table among the Westwood campus programs. It’s not like they weren’t reminded of it often.
“Before the season started I remember we had weight lifting the very first day and we went to the national championship room,” Tuesday’s winning starting pitcher Nick Vander Tuig said. “We were in the weight room and he saw all the national championships and went to baseball and there was none and I remember coach was saying, ‘We gotta get our name on that board.’ "
Championship No. 109 is a big one for athletic director Dan Guerrero. Sure, it was nice that the Bruins captured four national titles in his first season at the helm of the program in 2002-03. Most schools would be over the top ecstatic with that in four years.
But Guerrero is a baseball guy. A second baseman in the early 1970s with the Bruins, this one meant everything. Before this year, the program’s biggest claim to fame was Jackie Robinson played there. You could tell Tuesday night on the field just how much it meant, with tears flowing all around. UCLA’s extraordinary closer David Berg came up to his athletic director and gave him a big hug. He told him “We got you your crown jewel.”
A lot has been made about how the Bruins won that jewel. They hit just .227 in five College World Series games – inflated, believe it or not, by Tuesday’s 12 hits. But that’s how they play. And it’s how they and a lot of teams on the West Coast have adapted to the new game of college baseball. The one where we only saw three home runs in 14 CWS games in 2013.
Instead of home runs, UCLA tied the record for number of sacrifice bunts in a CWS with 12. A record that wasn’t touched since Santa Clara set it in 1962.
If you don’t like it, get used to it. Why? Because it’s working. That’s the fourth title in the last eight years for the Pac-12 after Oregon State won in 2006 and 2007 and Arizona won last season. Toss in Fresno State’s magical run in 2008 and you have five of the last eight from the left coast. They are doing something right out there, even if no one really notices.
“I don't think any of the experts thought we would be here at this stage, and we did it the right way,” Savage said. "We played baseball. We played good baseball. We pitched. We defended. We had quality offense, opportunistic offense for sure, and at the end of the day I think we outlasted everybody."
Savage learned from what some might call the king of West Coast baseball, Mike Gillespie. Savage won a national title while an assistant at Southern California in 1998 when Gillespie was the head coach. In that title game, USC beat Arizona State 21-14 to improve to 49-17. UCLA’s record to finish 2013? 49-17.
“We won a national championship in 1998, fifteen years ago,” Savage said. “We were 49-17. I looked at the record yesterday, and I had a good feeling we were going to end up with the same amount of wins, the same amount of losses. I knew the game wasn't going to be 21-14, thank God. But at the same time, I just owe my entire career to coach Gillespie. He meant everything to me and my family.”
There’s no doubt that Gillespie helped lead Savage to the coach he is today. He helped start the focus on pitching and defense – the two things that UCLA needed to do so well to win. The Bruins finished with a 0.80 ERA in five CWS games and committed just three errors.
Many kept commenting during UCLA’s two-week stint in Omaha that they are one of the most fundamentally sound teams anyone had ever seen. That’s how this team wins games. Before you can even look up at the scoreboard, they have a lead thanks to the incredible pressure they put on opposing pitchers and defenders.
UCLA’s brand of baseball is the one that should be taught to every kid around the world that picks up a glove for the first time. Sure there are those that miss the 21-14 games. But when that national championship trophy finally lands in that champions room on the Westwood campus, one gets the feeling it may have some newer company in the not-so-distant future.
Whether that’s a water polo title or a second baseball, we shall see. But one thing’s for sure: UCLA and the West Coast have made a statement. They are back on top of college baseball.