UCLA Reinforces SoCal ‘Juggernaut’ Status

LOS ANGELES—Coaches in the West like to talk about how much parity there is in this particular part of the country—how that makes it more difficult to get to 40 wins, because there are no easy midweek opponents to feast upon. There’s some validity to that notion, certainly.

The two regionals in Southern California featured seven teams from the West, and five of them entered the postseason ranked in the Baseball America Top 25. A sixth, Cal Poly, spent time in the rankings this year. But this weekend made it crystal clear that the West is top-heavy this year, like college baseball as a whole.

UCLA and Cal State Fullerton each dominated their regionals, setting up a dynamite super regional showdown between the two rivals for the second time in the last four years. There was no doubt that both the Bruins and the Titans were a cut above the other teams in their regionals. And it will be a treat to see them face off against each other next weekend in Fullerton.

Grant Watson

Grant Watson (Photo by Larry Goren)

UCLA capitalized on good fortune Saturday, when Cal Poly right fielder Nick Torres lost a Kevin Williams fly ball in the sky, leading to a three-run triple that tied the game in the sixth inning. But the Bruins were good enough to win the battle of the bullpens from that point on, and they won games Friday and Sunday in very convincing fashion. UCLA jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first inning of Sunday’s regional final against San Diego, highlighted by Pat Valaika’s two-run single, and then never looked back. Lefthander Grant Watson was utterly dominant, allowing just one hit and one walk while striking out five over seven shutout innings, leading the Bruins to a 6-0 win.

“I’m very excited and proud of our team,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “I thought we played Bruin baseball the entire weekend. We pitched, we played solid defense, and we had enough quality at-bats throughout the entire weekend. The first four, five innings of last night, it was upside down, as everybody saw. We bounced back.

“Tonight it was kind of a reverse—we jumped on them. I thought Grant was outstanding. I thought he pitched to both sides of the plate, had a good change, good curveball, good cutter. I thought he was in complete command of the game.”

And UCLA was in complete command of its regional, as usual. A half-decade ago, this program had a reputation for underachieving in big games, but that stigma is long gone. UCLA is now 17-6 in six regional trips under Savage and has won four regionals in the last seven years. The Bruins will make back-to-back trips to super regionals for the first time in program history. They have hosted regionals in four straight seasons, winning three of them.

“I’d like to give credit to UCLA—they’re a great team,” San Diego coach Rich Hill said. “Coach Savage and his staff do a great job. They’re a juggernaut here at Jackie Robinson Stadium.”

The Toreros have had their share of quality teams over the last decade, but they have been unable to get over the hump and reach super regionals, the way UCLA has been able to. How can USD elevate its program to the Bruins’ level?

John Savage

John Savage

“Host four straight regionals—that would be a start,” Hill said. “What coach Savage does that people don’t see is he is a relentless recruiter. He’s out everywhere, he’s extremely bright, hard-working, organized, and they’ve got this thing dialed in. Would we like to compare ourselves to UCLA? Yeah, we’d be flattering ourselves. They do such a great job. We recruit a lot of the same kids, there’s a very academic background to kids on both sides, in both dugouts tonight. With our new ballpark, I think this is going to become a reality, to continually strengthen our RPI. Our administration’s made a commitment to scheduling, to getting us to super regionals, and to getting us to the College World Series in Omaha.”

Cal Poly is at a different stage in its program’s development. The Mustangs made regionals for the second time in school history this year, and they earned their first NCAA tournament win Friday against USD. But the Toreros fought back and eliminated Cal Poly in Sunday’s first game, breaking open a 4-3 game with four runs in the sixth inning. USD’s superior bullpen depth was a factor in its 8-5 win against the Mustangs, as Trevor Bayless and Max Homick locked down the victory, while Cal Poly’s Michael Holback (2.1 IP, 2 H, 5 R, 2 ER) was unable to thwart San Diego’s sixth-inning rally. Holback and Reed Reilly have been rocks in the ‘pen for Poly all year, but the supporting cast was thin.

The core of Cal Poly’s team could be back next year, and the Mustangs have a chance to be even better in 2014 than they were this spring. The next step is to become a perennial regionals team, as Cal Poly coach Larry Lee put it.

“We’re fighting tradition in the Big West,” Lee said. “Fullerton’s had this thing going since the mid-70s, and we’re trying to play catch-up. But a program like ours, if we could get in three out of every four years, or four out of every five, then your players become accustomed to regional play. That’s like the teams in other parts of the country, maybe they’re in a weak conference, but they’re always in, and they’re going to win a regional now and then. That’s what Kent State did, that’s what Oral Roberts did.”

San Diego has already reached that perennial postseason team status, and its next step is to win a regional. Winning two games in one day Sunday proved too much for the Toreros, who brought back Max Homick to start the nightcap after he threw 16 pitches to record the final five outs of the first game. Hill figured his Toreros would need to use Homick at some point against UCLA, and he thought it was better if he was still warm from the first game, which concluded less than an hour before first pitch of the second game. The gambit did not pay off, as Homick failed to get out of the first inning against the Bruins. Just as USD’s bullpen depth separated it from Cal Poly, so too did UCLA’s bullpen depth separate it from the Toreros—although it helped that the Bruins had to play one fewer game than USD, so they had more fresh arms at their disposal Sunday.

“Watson was spectacular. Their bullpen is the best in the country, rivals any bullpen at any point in college baseball history, and they put it away,” Hill said.

That statement is a bit hyperbolic, but the Bruins do have an exceptional bullpen, as David Berg, James Kaprielian and Zack Weiss let them shorten games considerably. Kaprielian and Berg worked a combined three hitless innings of relief Saturday, and then Weiss and Berg worked two more hitless frames Sunday.

UCLA’s other major advantage over the rest of this regional field is the quality of its defense, which makes its pitching staff that much better. The Bruins really shined on defense Sunday, with third baseman Kevin Kramer making a pair of gorgeous diving plays, and shortstop Pat Valaika making another outstanding play on a ball up the middle.

And UCLA’s oft-maligned offense, which entered the postseason with a .249 team batting average, came up with big hits all weekend. Like Fullerton, the Bruins are playing their best baseball when it matters most. The Titans have had a knack for doing that for decades, winning regional after regional after regional. UCLA is now a program that expects to win regionals, too. Its celebration after finishing Sunday’s win was subdued, the mark of a team that has been there before.

“It was a difficult regional,” Savage said. “You had four good teams, all West Coast teams, well coached, a couple high drafts. I think you’d have to say our guys did a great job. I’m very proud of our players and our program.

“Really the basis of our program has been good kids, good players, team players. I think we broke out in 2010—obviously when you get to Omaha it’s a new world. As a program to be stamped, you need to go to Omaha, plain and simple. If you want to be talked about with the likes of Fullerton, Florida State, North Carolina and Vandy, you’ve got to get to Omaha, and we’ve done it two of the last three years. Our expectations are high. Certainly we’re excited about this weekend, but we know there’s a lot of baseball left.”