UCLA's athletics programs has picked up a record 106 titles, the most recent coming a few weeks ago by the softball team. One sport has, in somewhat baffling fashion, has rarely, if ever contended for an NCAA championship: baseball.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, UCLA has produced 63 future Major League players, including Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, third most among California schools behind USC (100) and Stanford (82). However, the sum of the parts at UCLA has always been much less than the whole.
In college baseball, there is only one destination that matters: Omaha. Since 1950, the NCAA has played its college baseball championship, called the College World Series, in Omaha, in storied Rosenblatt Stadium (which is shutting down after this year's CWS, as a newer stadium has been built in Downtown Omaha.)
UCLA, prior to this season, had made just two trips to Omaha, once in 1969, a team led by Chris Chambliss, and again in 1997, with Troy Glaus leading the way. In the eight-team, double elimination tournament, UCLA had a 0-4 record. Both trips were, as they say in Omaha, were "Go two and barbecue."
The 2010 Bruin baseball team made history on Saturday night, picking up UCLA's first ever win in the College World Series, pounding the #3 seed Florida, 11-3.
UCLA was expected to be among the top teams in the ultra-competitive Pac-10, but was not expected to be a national power. However, the Bruins started off the season with a school record 22 straight wins. Once conference play got underway, UCLA slowed down a little, but still finished the regular season with a 43-13 mark, 18-9 in the conference. UCLA finished two games behind conference champion Arizona State.
College baseball rankings vary quite a bit, but most observers thought that the #6 national seed that UCLA received from the NCAA wasn't too far off. The Bruins hosted a first round, four-team regional at Jackie Robinson Stadium, winning it easily, defeating Kent State, defending champion LSU, and UC Irvine.
That set up the Bruins for a best of three super-regional against Cal State Fullerton, a school that had given the Bruins fits in previous seasons. The Titans had won 60 of the previous 83 meetings (including two wins by the Titans in the regular season) before the two teams met on June 11 at Jackie Robinson Stadium.
In the first game, Fullerton beat the Bruins again, winning 4-3. UCLA had the tying run on third and winning run on first with no outs in the bottom of the ninth. And within a few pitches, a runner was picked off, one batter struck out, and another grounded out and the Bruins had to win two straight to get to Omaha.
The next day, UCLA trailed the Titans 6-5 with two outs in the ninth and no one on. Designated hitter Blair Dunlap drew a walk and second baseman Tyler Rahmatulla homered to put the Bruins ahead 7-6 going to the bottom of the ninth. The Titans managed to tie the game, but the Bruins used a dropped fly ball to score four runs and won 11-7.
The deciding game was far less dramatic as lefty Rob Rasmussen threw a complete game two-hitter. The Bruins cruised to Omaha with an 8-1 win. But, in the postgame celebration, Rahmatulla, the team's best hitter, broke his wrist.
The Bruins didn't seem to miss Rahmatulla much on Saturday night. They picked up 18 hits, although 15 were singles. UCLA made good use of four hit batters, four wild pitches, and three balks by the Florida pitching staff. The Bruins also stole five bases. Trevor Bauer struck out 11 batters in seven innings.
UCLA's next game will be Monday evening (around 6 pm) against TCU. If they win that game, they will not have to play again until Friday. A win Monday would be big for the Bruins because it would give them a chance to get more rest for the pitching staff, which has been the team's strength all year.
The Bruins have a team ERA of 2.97 (2nd best in the country) and held opposing batters to a .218 average. Six UCLA pitchers were picked in the recent MLB first-year player draft, including
three two of the team's four regular starters: Bauer, Rasmussen and Garret Claypool. (The other four were relievers, I mistakenly said that Bauer was drafted.)
Sophomore pitcher Gerrit Cole was a first round pick by the New York Yankees coming out of high school in 2008, but decided to go to UCLA instead. Cole has gone 10-3 this season with a 3.25 ERA (sophomores are not eligible for the MLB draft) and should start on Monday. Bauer and Cole both were named All-America pitchers.
Now, if you want to see a briskly paced game, you might not want to tune in to see UCLA. The Bruins usually play games of Yankee-Red Sox like length. (Saturday's game took 3:46 to play as the Bruins scored in eight different innings.) UCLA coach John Savage likes to play small ball, as his team has hit just 61 home runs in 63 games, a fairly low total for college ball. UCLA has been successful on 100 of 131 stolen base attempts. The Bruins have also sacrificed 53 times. (They've also reached on catcher's interference once this year.)
In a best case scenario, UCLA can beat the Horned Frogs on Monday and then wait until Friday to play the survivor among TCU, Florida, and Florida State. And if they win on Friday, they move on to the best of three championship series, possibly against conference champ Arizona State, the #1 team in the country. (Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Clemson are also in Omaha.)
The Bruins still have a long way to go to bring home their first national title in baseball. But, at least they have won a game in the College World Series and are no longer tied with Harvard for the worst record ever in the CWS. The Bruins took a big step Saturday night to having a lengthy stay in Omaha.