OMAHA—John Savage stood off to the side of the makeshift stage that had been erected around home plate, cradling the national championship trophy in both hands, a huge grin plastered across his face.
“Can you believe we did it?” he said, as his grin turned sly. “And the way we did it!”
UCLA won its first national championship with an 8-0 victory against Mississippi State on Tuesday night. The way the Bruins marched unbeaten through the postseason wasn’t quite like any champion that came before them.
UCLA scored just 19 runs in its five games in the College World Series—the fewest ever for a national champion. The Bruins slugged just .193 in Omaha—the lowest ever for a national champion by a wide margin (the next closest was the 1970 Southern California team at .274). UCLA hit just .227 in Omaha, the lowest of any champion in the metal-bat era. The Bruins did not hit a home run in Omaha—they didn’t even come close—making them the first champion to go homerless since 1966.
But UCLA also became the first team to allow one run or fewer in every CWS game en route to the national championship. The Bruins, who allowed just 14 runs total during their 10-0 run through the NCAA tournament, pitched historically well in the postseason.
|Game At A Glance|
|Turning Point: UCLA took control of the game with a pair of runs in the third inning, giving it a 3-0 lead. Brian Carroll, who was on base four times in the game, sparked the rally with a one-out walk, moved to third on Kevin Kramer’s single to right, and scored on Eric Filia’s perfect safety squeeze. Pat Valaika followed with an RBI single to right, and UCLA never looked back.
The Hero: UCLA junior righty Nick Vander Tuig was in complete control of the game from the outset, retiring the first eight MSU batters of the game, and retiring eight in a row again from the fifth inning into the seventh. He gave up just five hits and a walk while striking out six over eight shutout innings, making him 4-0, 1.65 in the NCAA tournament and 2-0, 0.60 in Omaha. In addition to his typical outstanding fastball command and quality changeup, Vander Tuig had great success by getting lefthanded hitters to chase his high-70s downer curve.
You Might Have Missed: Ross Mitchell and Jonathan Holder each put together All-America-caliber seasons, and both were outstanding in the postseason as well, but the Bruins got to both of them Tuesday. Mitchell, who entered to start the second inning after Luis Pollorena labored through the first, gave up three runs on two hits, while Holder allowed three runs on seven hits over a career-long four innings.
Tuesday’s clinching victory featured yet another dominating performance by a UCLA starter, as Nick Vander Tuig allowed just five hits over eight shutout innings, striking out six. In two CWS starts, Vander Tuig gave up one run in 15 innings.
Back on March 16, after Vander Tuig threw his first career shutout against Washington, Savage sat in his office at UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium, leaned back in his chair and tried to assess his team, which was off to a 14-3 start.
“We’re still trying to find out what we’ve got,” Savage said then. “We haven’t swung the bats very well—it’s no secret—but we think we have some good, young, capable players. We feel like we are deep. We don’t have that star power right now, certainly on offense. We have a bunch of guys that are blue-collar guys on the mound, with good stuff. It’s not crazy stuff, but it’s guys that are pounding the zone with multiple pitches. They’re good enough.”
As it turned out, Savage knew exactly what he had, because his assessment in mid-March rings truer than ever in late June. UCLA might lack star power on offense, but its pitching is most definitely good enough. Vander Tuig and fellow junior righthander Adam Plutko will go down as one of the great pitching duos in College World Series history. Each of them started twice in Omaha, and each of them won twice; they allowed a combined three runs in 28 innings (0.96 ERA). Plutko, who won UCLA’s CWS opener against Louisiana State and its Finals opener against Mississippi State, was named CWS Most Outstanding Player.
Afterward, Plutko recalled a meeting he had with Savage when he returned to campus last summer, shortly after having knee surgery.
“He told this story one time about how he had Mark Prior and Barry Zito at USC, and they could never win a national championship for him,” Plutko said, referencing Savage’s days as Southern California’s pitching coach. “And a guy named Seth Etherton, a guy most people have never heard of, did. I sat down in that chair, and I looked him right in the eye, and I said, ‘I’m going to be that Seth Etherton for us. I’m going to take it home.’ ”
He did just that, and so did sophomore lefty Grant Watson (who shut down North Carolina in Omaha) and Vander Tuig, who had Tommy John surgery before he ever showed up at UCLA and started his collegiate career in the bullpen. He joined Plutko in the rotation as a sophomore and helped lead the Bruins to Omaha, and he said that experience helped prepare him to take home the big prize this year.
Before the season started, Vander Tuig said, the Bruins visited the school’s Hall of Champions on the day of their first weight-lifting session.
“(Savage) took us to the national championships, and there were so many,” Vander Tuig said, referencing the school’s 108 trophies for NCAA team championships. “Then we went to baseball, and there were none. And I remember Coach was saying, ‘We’ve got to get our name on that board.’ So I think we worked hard from Day One.”
Sophomore closer David Berg, who broke the NCAA single-season saves record Monday and tied the single-season appearances record with his 51st of the year Tuesday, harkened back to another team meeting, in early April after the Bruins had dropped a home series against Oregon State—their second straight series loss.
“We all sat in the locker room and looked at each other . . . we had gone through a little bit of a rough patch,” Berg said. “The bats weren’t goin’ and it felt like, ‘Hey, we’re not achieving what we could,’ and we weren’t sure we were putting our all into everything we did. So we sat in that meeting and looked each other in the eyes and made that commitment to each other that, hey, we have a chance to do something special here.”
After that meeting, Berg said, “you could really just see a spark where every single detail, we really put 100 percent into everything we did.” From weight lifting to practice to cleaning the bus, the Bruins became wholly dedicated to getting every little detail right.
That unwavering focus was critical in Omaha, where UCLA played superb defense and consistently took advantage when its opponents made mistakes. The Bruins cobbled together just enough offense to win for most of the CWS, moving runners over when they reached via walks, errors, wild pitches or even hits. In fact, UCLA tied the CWS record with 12 sacrifice bunts, matching the 1962 Santa Clara team. And when the Bruins needed a timely hit in the postseason, they generally got one.
They got a whole bunch Tuesday, from the first inning on. The game started in typical UCLA fashion, with leadoff man Brian Carroll getting hit by a pitch, reaching third when MSU committed two errors on Kevin Kramer’s sacrifice bunt attempt, and scoring on Eric Filia’s sacrifice fly. It was the kind of opportunism UCLA had illustrated throughout the postseason.
In the third, UCLA’s bats started to heat up in a way they hadn’t previously in Omaha. The Bruins added two more runs in that frame on a pair of singles and a perfect safety squeeze by Filia. They added two more in the fourth on two hits, a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly. And they strung together four straight hits in the eighth to break the game wide open with two more runs. Filia led UCLA’s 12-hit barrage, going 2-for-3 with five RBIs, capped by a two-run single in the eighth. In the postseason, he hit a team-best .444 with 11 RBIs.
In the end, it was a complete team effort. Sure, UCLA’s pitching and defense were its biggest strengths, but the Bruins were simply sharper, more focused and more cohesive than every other team they played in the postseason. That is how they vanquished one juggernaut after another, from Cal State Fullerton in super regionals to LSU, N.C. State, North Carolina and Mississippi State in Omaha.
Now, with three CWS trips in four years capped by a national championship, UCLA can count itself among college baseball’s truly elite programs.
“I’m so proud of our program, players, coaches,” Savage said. “This is for the UCLA baseball family: Coach (Gary) Adams, coach (Art) Reichle, (athletics director) Dan Guerrero, all the people that have been meaningful to this program for many, many years, certainly before I got there, and it’s an honor and a privilege to be the coach at UCLA.
“I’m just so proud of these guys. They did it on the field. I don’t think any of the experts thought we would be here at this stage, and we did it the right way. 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.”
It wasn’t the same way Arizona dominated during its unbeaten run to last year’s national title. It was different from South Carolina’s 10-0 run to the 2011 title.
It was UCLA’s way, all the way.