Monday, May 28, 2012
UCLA defeats USC, wins share of Pac-12
By Peter Yoon
LOS ANGELES -- At some point the UCLA baseball team might figure out how to win a conference title without so much drama, but until that day arrives the Bruins will just have to take what they can get.
The Bruins won a share of the Pac-12 title when they completed a three-game sweep over crosstown rival USC with a 7-6 victory Sunday in the regular-season finale at Jackie Robinson Stadium. It is the second consecutive conference title for the Bruins, who have won both by overcoming long odds on the final weekend.
This year, the Bruins trailed Oregon by two games and Arizona by one heading into the final weekend, but Oregon got swept by Oregon State and Arizona lost two of three to Arizona State, leaving the Bruins (42-14, 20-10) in a tie with Arizona (38-17, 20-10) atop the final standings. The conference crowns co-champions so no tiebreakers are used to determine a champion.
Last year, UCLA entered the final weekend a game behind Oregon State, but won the title outright when Oregon State got swept by Oregon.
"We feel very fortunate," coach John Savage said. "That’s why you play 30 games. Until the last pitch is thrown, there is anybody in this conference that can beat anybody and it just goes to show you that. I don’t know what to say other than the credit goes to the players and sometimes you get a little lucky how things fall and today we were a little fortunate."
It is the 1oth conference title in baseball for UCLA, but it is the first time the Bruins have won titles in consecutive seasons and completed a season in which the Bruins won 40-plus games for the eighth time in school history. It also continued a run of domination over USC (23-32, 8-22) as UCLA defeated the Trojans for the 19th time in the last 24 meetings.
"When you're at UCLA, you always want to beat SC and sweeping them is extra sweet," said shortstop Pat Valaika, whose two-run single in the bottom of the eighth broke a 5-5 tie. "And to sweep them to win the conference title is even sweeter."
It certainly wasn't easy. UCLA was seemingly coming from behind the whole game as USC took a 2-0 lead in the second, a 3-2 lead in the fourth and a 4-3 lead in the sixth before Trevor Brown delivered a two-run single in the sixth to give UCLA a 5-4 lead.
USC tied it in the top of the eighth when James Roberts struck out with two outs and the bases loaded, but reached first when the third strike hit the dirt and scooted to the backstop for a wild pitch.
The Bruins loaded the bases in the eighth on a hit batter, a walk and an error, bringing Valaika to the plate to face USC reliever Martin Viramontes. Valaika struck out against Viramontes on Saturday with the bases loaded in the ninth, so Valaika said he was extra focused for his eighth-inning at bat Sunday.
"I wanted a little bit of revenge," Valaika said. "I hit a curve ball, which he was throwing a lot of those yesterday, so I was just sitting on it and trying to do my job and it worked out."
The hit not only got Valaika some revenge, but it got UCLA the conference title. If they had lost to USC, the Bruins would have finished a game behind Arizona, which had already finished playing by the time Valaika came to bat in the eighth.
It completed a remarkable closing stretch of the season for UCLA, which won 11 of its last 12 games and 14 of 16 to end the regular season.The Bruins were rewarded by the NCAA for that effort when they were chosen as one of 16 hosts for the regionals which begin Friday.
It is the third consecutive year the Bruins have been selected as a regional host and on Monday morning, they are expected to earn a top eight national seeding for the playoffs.
"We’re excited with where we are," Savage said. "All the credit goes to the players. They stayed together all season with one of the toughest schedules in the country and in one of the toughest baseball conferences in the country."
And a conference in which UCLA is the champion.
"It means a lot to everybody in the program," Savage said. "To be able to say that we’re back to back, it’s special. I think everybody in our room feels that way."
Especially with how unlikely it seemed when the weekend began.
"Definitely coming into it a lot of it wasn’t in our hands," center fielder Beau Amaral said. "We just knew that we had to take care of our side of it and hope for the best and we're all pretty proud of the accomplishment. It says a lot about our team and our coaches and our program."