FULLERTON, Calif.—Suddenly, 2009 feels like a very long time ago.
Back then, Cal State Fullerton was the undisputed college baseball superpower of Southern California, having made three trips to the College World Series in four years and seven trips during the first 11 years of the 64-team NCAA tournament era. In 2009, UCLA was still an upstart trying to break a 12-year CWS drought.
In the four years since, the Titans have not been back to Omaha—their longest drought since they made their first College World Series appearance in 1975. And UCLA is about to make its second straight trip to Omaha, and its third in the last four years. For the second time during that stretch, the Bruins vanquished their one-time nemeses—the Titans.
Nick Vander Tuig and the airtight UCLA bullpen shut out Cal State Fullerton for just the second time all season on Saturday, leading the Bruins a 3-0 win and a sweep of the Fullerton Super Regional.
It marked just the second time this season that Cal State Fullerton has lost back-to-back games. The Titans (51-10) were won of college baseball’s most consistent and dominant teams in 2013, but in a reversal of their former roles, UCLA (44-17) executed more big pitches, made more big defensive plays and got more big hits than Fullerton did this weekend.
“I still think they’re the best team in the country,” UCLA coach John Savage said of the Titans. “People may not believe me. We were the best team the last two nights, but they were a special, special team the entire season. They didn’t lose a series the whole year. So we feel very fortunate we got by a very good program.”
For the second straight night, the Bruins took advantage of their good fortune when Fullerton made mistakes. After Thomas Eshelman retired the first two UCLA batters in the first inning, a Carlos Lopez error kept the inning alive. Pat Valaika followed with an infield single, and Kevin Williams hit a routine chopper to third baseman Matt Chapman, who airmailed the throw to first, loading the bases. Pat Gallagher followed with a two-run single, and Shane Zeile with an RBI single, giving the Bruins all the runs they would need. All three were unearned, of course.
UCLA had just three more hits the rest of the way against Eshelman, who needed just 103 pitches to get through eight innings. In a super regional that pitted Cal State Fullerton’s sensational freshman duo of Justin Garza and Eshelman against UCLA’s rock-solid junior pair of Adam Plutko and Vander Tuig, starting pitching wasn’t the difference, because all four of them performed well.
“This weekend we just didn’t cash in runs,” Fullerton senior shortstop Richy Pedroza said. “Our guys pitched their asses off, and that’s basically it.”
“He gave up no earned runs,” Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook said of Eshelman (12-3). “He threw 103 pitches in eight innings; Vander Tuig threw 119 in six and a third. And (Eshelman) had to face five extra hitters after that two-out, nobody-on error (in the first). I thought he was fantastic. That was the best performance of the whole tournament for us or the other team. He was more dominant than anyone else this weekend that I saw.”
Vander Tuig (12-4) was not dominant, but he was in control, as always. Like Plutko, he pitches to contact and trusts his superb defense to make plays behind him, which means he does allow baserunners. But he has shown a knack for making big pitches in big spots for three years now, and that’s just what he did Saturday.
After a 1-2-3 first, Fullerton put runners on base in each of the next five innings, but Vander Tuig stranded them each time. He stranded men at first and second in the second inning, then escaped a second-and-third jam in the third. The trend continued against relievers James Kaprielian, Zack Weiss and David Berg. In all, the Titans left 12 men on base.
“I’m disappointed in how we played offense,” Vanderhook said. “Because we didn’t play offense very good—we didn’t have any offense. It was get a hit or be out. There was no offense in there. I think John (Savage), they started trying to think with him, and they have no chance. I tried to explain that he’s smarter at calling pitches and setting them up than they are at figuring him out. I thought he did a good job with it.”
With three College World Series appearances now on his resume—that’s one more than the Bruins made in their entire history before 2010—Savage has cemented his place as one of the nation’s very best coaches, and his Bruins have made it clear that the college baseball landscape in Southern California has altered irrevocably. The Bruins and Titans have many great battles ahead of them, because as Savage said Saturday, Vanderhook clearly has a great thing going, and his program’s future is very bright. But the days of Fullerton running roughshod over everybody else in the region are not coming back. Because UCLA is not going away.
“I couldn’t be any prouder of our program and our student athletes,” Savage said. “We just bonded. We just became a team a couple weeks ago. Whenever you get to Fullerton and you win two games against what might be the best team in the country, it says a lot about their character, their habits, their discipline—you name it. So I think we earned it.”
This team earned it, by playing excellent defense and getting excellent pitching all year long, by competing hard and making consistent progress on offense, and by buying in to the coaching staff’s philosophies and learning to trust each other.
And, from a long-term perspective, this program earned it, by bridging the daunting chasm that once separated it from Cal State Fullerton and the college baseball elites. Unlike UCLA’s previous two super regional triumphs, this one came away from the friendly confines of Jackie Robinson Stadium—another mark of an elite program.
“It is special that we did it on the road,” Savage sad. “But that’s also a culmination of us doing things right for a long time.”