In 2008, UCLA was ranked #1 in Baseball America’s preseason poll, only to lose in the Regional round to Cal-State Fullerton, a team that they also lost to in 2007 in the Super Regionals. They followed that disappointing year with a sub-.500 season in 2009, but established a young core of players that would be firing on all cylinders coming out of the gates in 2010.
How they got here
UCLA began this season with a 22-0 record, and despite a few hiccups along the way, remained one of the most consistent teams in college baseball, ending the regular season as the #6 National Seed and bring a 48-14 record into Omaha. The Bruins cruised their way through the Group of Death in the Regional round, disposing of defending National Champion LSU as well as UC-Irvine on the way to the Super Regionals to face their arch-nemesis, Cal-State Fullerton. After a Game 1 loss and trailing to Fullerton late in Game 2 of the Los Angeles Super Regional, the Bruins were down to their final out down 7-6 and were able to rely on the senior leadership of Blair Dunlap (who redeemed himself from the errant no-out pickoff from first in Game 1) to draw a 2-out walk, as Tyler Rahmatulla used his Soriano-esque swing to take the lead with a blast to left field, and the Bruins capitalized in extra innings to force a Game 3. In the third game, UCLA took advantage of a Fullerton error and never looked back, relying on the arm of the reliable LHP Rob Rasmussen to finally slay the Titans and move on to Omaha with an 8-1 victory.
UCLA is one of the most battled tested teams in the country coming into Omaha, dealing with the mid-season gutcheck of being swept by #1 National Seed Arizona State at home, being outscored 23-5. I personally thought the Bruins were just an OK team who had a hot start at this point, but they are 18-4 since that series and bring the top overall remaining pitching staff in the country into Omaha.
Their rotation is an absolute 3-headed monster, led by possible 2011 #1 overall pick Sophomore RHP Gerrit Cole (10-3, 3.25 ERA), who has sent down 138 batters with strikeouts this year while only allowing a .195 BAA. Sophomore RHP Trevor Bauer shares an identical 10-3 record and a 3.02 ERA while fanning 141 batters this season. Bauer pitched 8 innings of solid work against LSU in the Regional Round, striking out 11 Tigers and scattering 7 hits on the way to leading the Bruins to the Regional Final. Bauer has shown to get a bit rattled at times, giving up a 4 run 7th inning to the Titans following a leadoff single by Catcher Billy Marcoe in which Bauer was visibly upset at a possible 3rd strike call the pitch before. That being said, I’d want him in my starting rotation anytime. The most consistent pitcher for the Bruins all season was their third starter, Junior LHP Rob Rasmussen (11-2, 2.73, 117 K’s), who dominated Fullerton in the Super Regional finale.
If any of these main starters get into trouble, Senior RHP Garrett Claypool (8-3, 2.05 ERA) was as consistent a mid-week starter as you’ll find in the country, and by my count had 1 bad inning all year against the aforementioned Titans on April 6th. He’s literally their ace in the hole, and if any of their main starters get in trouble, his senior leadership can be relied on to bail them out of a jam in long relief. The fantastic pitching doesn’t stop with the starters, as the Bruin bullpen was punishing all year. They relied mostly on the righty-lefty combo of Erik Goeddel (2-0, 3.26 ERA) and Matt Grace (1-0, 3.00 ERA) to set up closer Dan Klein (6-0, 1.93 ERA, 9 SV).
The Bruins have relied on their strong pitching all year, as it has only been as of late that their bats have come through with timely hitting. Coach John Savage admitted that the team has "No eye-popping numbers offensively" but that they play a West Coast style of baseball of getting guys on, while using bunting and the hit-and-run to score runs. The Bruins have players all over the order that can get on and move, with Freshman CF Beau Amaral (.352/4/29) leading off the lineup. The only thing concerning about Amaral is his high strikeout total for a leadoff man (49) and was only 8-17 on stolen base attempts, which is something to watch out for. The Bruins will need Amaral to have some good at-bats to take advantage of a dominant Florida pitching staff in their opening game. Senior Blair Dunlap (.323/5/23) usually hits in the two hole, and one of these two are usually driven in by Tyler Rahmatulla (.328/7/45), but the Super Regional hero and overall best run generator is out for the College World Series after breaking his wrist in the dogpile on Sunday. (FULL ARTICLE) Freshman Cody Regis (.317/8/42) has been a big game player for the Bruins and will most likely move over to 2nd Base, while Freshman utility player Trevor Brown could be utilized in this role as well, while Dean Espy can be moved over to play third base. Junior SS Niko Gallego (.264/3/30) is great with the glove, earning a #1 ESPN Top Play over the weekend, but needs to get on base and move over for the Bruins to have success with Rahmatulla out of the lineup.
The Bruins are going to rely on their strong pitching to make it through Omaha. If they get behind in games, they’re going to have to rely on head coach John Savage’s game plan to win ball games. Savage doesn’t have the offense like he had as part of Gillespie’s staff at USC in 1998, but he’s coached on the big stage before and has the smarts to make timely decisions. If their starters can stay as consistent as they’ve been all year, UCLA has a legitimate chance in any ball game. And just maybe, John Wooden will give the Bruins the inspiration they need to make a run at the National Championship a reality.
Odds: UCLA 10/1