What a difference a weekend makes.
Heading into Friday night’s series opener against Arizona State, UCLA was tied for second in the Pac-10 and likely headed to Cal State Fullerton for NCAA Regional play. The Bruins needed some help to have any chance of sharing a conference title, and hosting a regional was all but out of the question.
Fast forward to Sunday afternoon. UCLA had won its first outright Pac-10 Championship since 1986 and learned it would be hosting a regional, despite having the worst RPI among the 16 host schools.
UCLA received some help from Oregon on Sunday to win the conference. The Ducks completed their sweep of the No. 15 Oregon State Beavers to leave the Bruins standing alone at the top of the conference.
UCLA last won a share of the conference crown in 2000, along with Stanford and Arizona State.
“I’m proud of our team,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “They deserve to be Pac-10 champs. We won seven out of nine weekends. If you’re going to win the conference, winning it at a place like Arizona State is very unique and exciting.”
UCLA enters this weekend’s regional as the No. 1 seed in its bracket. Because they weren’t awarded a top-eight national seed, the Bruins won’t be hosting a super regional unless one of those top-eight seeds is upset.
Jackie Robinson Stadium will host Fresno State, UC Irvine and San Francisco in the regional. UCLA has already faced San Francisco and UC Irvine this season, going a combined 4-1 in those contests.
It appears that the No. 17 Bruins passed the NCAA selection committee’s “eye test,” as the sheer numbers and their regular season resume didn’t lend themselves to a hosting bid, let alone a No. 1 seed.
“I think it’s based on our players,” Savage said of the selection. “It’s based on what they did last year. … Everyone knows we’re a very capable team and we’re an experienced team, and we’ve gone through this once before.”
Friday’s and Saturday’s wins evidently impressed the committee, as the host sites were announced Sunday afternoon before UCLA had lost the series finale to No. 10 Arizona State, 10-5.
It took a few “firsts” for the Bruins to get to their current favorable position. It was the first time that UCLA had won a series at Arizona State’s Packard Stadium since 2003 and the first time Arizona State had lost a home series since 2008.
It wasn’t just any old series victory, either. There was no doubt about this one. Friday starter junior Gerrit Cole got back on track by striking out nine Sun Devils on his way to winning just his second game in seven starts, a 10-3 decision.
“I didn’t change my approach, and I just kept making pitches and wearing them down throughout the night,” Cole said.
Junior Trevor Bauer didn’t waste what was his last regular-season start as a Bruin either. The right-hander struck out 14 batters in his eighth consecutive complete game effort, a 7-0 win Saturday.
Stellar pitching performances, though, are nothing new for this year’s Bruin team. It’s been the hitting that hasn’t always caught up to the arms on the hill.
Last weekend was a different story. Eight Bruins had hits in Friday’s win and Saturday’s game saw two home runs from the UCLA lineup, a rarity with this season’s change in bat regulations.
“It just felt natural going back there,” said junior first baseman Dean Espy, a native of Mesa, Ariz., who went four-for-four Saturday, including one of those home runs. “It was really easy for me to find success (last) weekend.”