Thursday, June 14, 2012
UCLA has unfinished business in Omaha
By Peter Yoon
The name on the front of their jerseys is the same and if UCLA had names on the backs of their jerseys, many of those would be the same, too.
But make no mistake, the UCLA baseball team that takes the field against Stony Brook for the College World Series opener Friday at 2 p.m. Pacific in Omaha, Neb., is a much different Bruins team than the 2010 version.
This team relies on balanced across all three phases of the game rather than a pitching staff that was among the best ever assembled in college baseball. This team has veteran leadership and experience rather than a staring lineup that included mostly freshmen and sophomores.
And while the 2010 team was the upstart program making only the third College World Series appearance since 1969, this team comes in as a national power with something to prove after coming up short in the 2010 national championship series.
"We got left at the altar last time," coach John Savage said. "There are some guys left saying 'hey, we came that close to winning the national championship.'"
There are seven of those players, to be exact. Seven current juniors who were on the team that advanced through the College World Series bracket only to get swept by South Carolina in the best-of-three championship series.
Outfielders Beau Amaral and Jeff Gelalich, designated hitter Cody Regis and infielder Trevor Brown all either started or played regularly during that 2010 post season run. Outfielder Cody Keefer was a starter that season until a leg injury knocked him out of the last 20 games. Catcher Tyler Heineman did not play in the College World Series, but he was there to experience the loss as was closer Scott Griggs, who pitched an inning of relief in Omaha that season.
For those players, a shot at redemption and a chance to complete some unfinished business is before them, but the Bruins know they have to keep those thoughts in check.
"It’s always disappointing to come that close and to lose," Gelalich said. "But it’s a different team, a different group of guys, a different ball park. We’re not going to try to make one game bigger than it needs to be."
The big difference in this team is the absence of Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, the workhorse pitchers that were picked No. 1 and No. 3 in the Major League Baseball draft after last season. Those two along with Rob Rasmussen and closer Dan Klein dominated games as the staff ranked among the top three in the nation in ERA, strikeouts and hits per nine innings.
This season, however, the Bruins are using a more balanced attack with pitching and hitting that fall into the category of good, but not great. UCLA (47-14) is not among the top 10 teams in the country in any major offensive or pitching statistical category, but is very good at finding way to win games. Their .770 winning percentage is third in the nation.
"Solid pitching, solid defense and solid hitting, but nothing off the charts," Savage said. "No crazy numbers here. You look at our numbers you probably say solid team, but not a 47-14 team."
It starts with the mindset of the players and a team chemistry that began evolving from the first day the team got together. Without that established, elite-level pitching to rely on, the Bruins figured it would take a team-first approach.
They had to check their egos at the clubhouse door and do all the little things right. They sacrifice instead of trying to hit three run homers. They pitch to contact instead of going for the strikeout. They play smart on defense and rarely make errors.
"Looking back at the past we’ve been blessed to have great pitching here," Gelalich said. "This year, we love our staff, but it’s more of a collective team this year. There is not one aspect of our game that is overpowering. The pitching picks us up sometimes when we can’t get as many runs as we can and we pick them up sometimes when they are out there struggling. It goes both ways. There’s not one aspect that is too big."
What is big is the new stadium, TD Ameritrade Park. The College World Series moved there last season after 60 years in Rosenblatt Staduim and quickly developed a reputation as a pitcher's park. When UCLA visited in 2010, the Bruins played at Rosenblatt, where a three-run home run was almost always just around the corner.
But with a pitching staff filled with fly ball pitchers, an outfield that can track down just about any fly ball and an offense that relies on the opposite field single, UCLA should be in much better shape than teams who rely on the long ball.
"On paper, I think the ballpark is pretty well suited for us," Savage said. "But until you go play you don’t know."
UCLA, seeded No. 2 nationally, is favored over Stony Brook in the first game, but they certainly won't be the crowd favorite. Stony Brook is the underdog story that everyone loves, a team that was seeded No. 4 in it's regional and battled through some big dogs to make to the national stage.
Having a crowd root for the other team, however, hasn't affected UCLA all season. The Bruins were a national-best 19-4 on the road this season--a testament to the chemistry on the team. They also had the nation's No. 6 strength of schedule, and, of course, the experience of playing on this big stage in 2010.
"We've had chemistry since day one," Savage said. "It’s a tough-minded group that I think has played one of the toughest schedules in the country. It’s battle tested. We feel good about our team and the way we’re playing."