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UCLA starting to make Omaha a regular destination

For most people who attend UCLA, the baseball team does not register much in their consciousness. The team's home park, Jackie Robinson Stadium, is off campus on the Veterans Administration property. Most people only come in contact with it if the only parking permit they can get is for the lot near it, requiring them to take a shuttle bus to campus.

But, over the last four years, the baseball program, long one of the biggest underachievers on campus, has advanced to Omaha to play in the College World Series, three of the past four seasons, finishing second in 2010, and starting off this year's tournament with a 2-1 win over #4 national seed LSU. UCLA finished third in the Pac-12 this season behind Oregon State (which made it Omaha and lost its first game, but won its second) and Oregon (which did not make it to Omaha)

The Bruins success can be summed up in one word: pitching. Although the team does not have any first round draft pick pitcher like it did in 2011 with Gerrit Cole (who beat the Dodgers while pitching for the Pirates on Sunday and was the #1 overall pick in 2001) and Trevor Bauer (#3 overall in 2011 by Arizona, but traded to Cleveland after Bauer and the Diamondbacks clashed over his training methods), but the staff is still strong. Led by starters Adam Plutko (who held the powerful LSU offense to one run on Sunday), Nick Vander Tuig, and Grant Watson, the staff ERA is 2.66. Coach John Savage has been one of the most effective recruiters of pitching talent in the country.

The bullpen has been even stronger for UCLA. The nation's top reliever, David Berg, saved 22 games and has an 0.87 ERA for the year. Berg does not throw particularly, but has a deceptive submarine delivery. Freshman James Kaprielian usually pitches the eighth inning and has a 1.63 ERA.

UCLA has an offense straight out of 1968. The team batted .250 overall and hit just 19 home runs in 62 games. Shortstop Pat Valaika led the team with just five home runs and a slugging percentage of .397. Nevertheless, UCLA still managed to outscore its opponents by 102 runs on the season, which doesn't make them the 1927 Yankees, but it was not as if UCLA eked out every win like they did on Sunday.

Judging by the ESPN broadcast of Sunday night's game, announcers Mike Patrick and Orel Hershiser, seemed to think that UCLA would have been better giving an unconditional surrender to the Tigers, described by Baseball America in their CWS preview as "...the favorite to win the national championship. The Tigers are a complete club without any major weaknesses, and they are playing their best heading into the CWS."

Most of the crowd shots during the game focused on the numerous LSU fans who had made the trek up to Omaha, bedecked in their distinctive purple gear, usually with a funny hat of some kind. The Tigers average over 10,000 fans per game, while UCLA's home stadium seats just 1,200. Mostly friends and family have made the trip to Nebraska to root on the Bruins. (UCLA's commencement ceremonies were over the weekend as well.)

During Sunday's game, LSU took a 1-0 lead on a home run by Mason Katz. UCLA tied the game up in a very typical UCLA fashion this season. In the sixth, center fielder Brian Carroll reached second on a bunt after LSU catcher Ty Ross made a throwing error. A ground out moved Carroll to third and he scored on a sacrifice fly by Eric Filia.

UCLA scored the go-ahead run in the eighth. Pinch hitter Ty Moore singled and Christoph Bono ran for him. Carroll sacrificed him over (UCLA's fourth sacrifice of the game). After a fly out, Filia hit a grounder to short that handcuffed LSU's Alex Bregman and Bono scored to take the lead. This also sent Patrick and Hershiser off to ask the production team for UCLA anecdotes to add to the broadcast.

LSU put three men on base in the 9th against Berg, but a double play slowed down the rally and UCLA prevailed 2-1 and advanced to play North Carolina State on Tuesday night at 5 pm on ESPN2. If the Bruins were to win that game, they would be off until Friday. If they lose, they would play the winner of the elimination game between LSU and North Carolina on Thursday.

UCLA still has a tall order to win the championship. Baseball America considered UCLA to be the 7th most likely team to win the College World Series. The only team given less of a chance was Indiana, who also won its opening game in its first ever appearance in Omaha, but lost Monday night to Mississippi State to be put into an elimination game against Oregon State on Wednesday. Since 2006, the CWS has been won by a Pac-12 or SEC team all but one year. (Fresno State of the WAC in 2008.)

The narrative around UCLA will be "grit" and "determination." However, college baseball has changed in recent years as the aluminum bats have been made less elastic and balls are no longer hit as hard. And the College World Series moved from Rosenblatt Stadium, which favored hitters, to TD Ameritrade Park, which has much deeper power alleys and has given up fewer home runs during its three-year run as host of the CWS.

UCLA may not be able to make it all the way to the championship series (June 24-26), but they have already turned the College World Series upside down by knocking off LSU. No team in Omaha has as much experience playing there as the current Bruins squad. Infielder Cody Regis is playing in his third CWS.

This year's UCLA baseball team may not have anyone who will be appearing in the majors as fast as Cole or Bauer, but there were still seven Bruins chosen in the recent MLB draft, although none before the sixth round. UCLA will have to just muddle through with a team that has managed to go 45-17 this season in a decidedly unspectacular, but highly successful fashion. UCLA swept through its subregional at home against San Diego, San Diego State, and Cal Poly, and then surprised the #5 national seed, Cal State Fullerton, with two straight wins at Fullerton's Goodwin Field in the superregional.

Personally, I would like to see UCLA win a College World Series, so people will recognize the baseball cap I wear as a UCLA cap (it's blue with a gold B in the front and UCLA embroidered on the back brim). Some people think I'm wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers cap (which would be a different shade of blue with a white B that is a different font) or some alternate Boston Red Sox cap (which would be dark blue with a red B) on it. I want to finally say, "Yeah, I was in to these guys before they became popular."


More by Bob Timmermann:
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