Sitting at the desk of his Jackie Robinson Stadium office following UCLA’s series-clinching win over Arizona last Saturday, an animated John Savage held a blue pen in his right hand and black-rimmed glasses in his left.
The Bruin coach staggered the items so that the glasses were slightly in front.
“We’ve won the league, the last two years, in the last weekend. It was like a Kentucky Derby race where this race is here and then all of the sudden you’ve got the finish line,” Savage said, at this point sliding the pen past the glasses as if it were UCLA taking the lead. “And we did that when we won (two years ago) at ASU. We did that last year when we swept USC the last weekend so it’s not over ‘til it’s over.”
While the No. 8 Bruins have won 10 of their last 12 conference games, including consecutive home sweeps, they’ve failed to make up much ground in the Pac-12 standings.
Heading into a road series at USC starting today, UCLA (34-15, 17-7) finds itself in third place in the Pac-12, three games behind Oregon State and two behind Oregon, who will play each other this weekend. Savage maintains that the back-to-back conference champions are not out of it, even if they find themselves trailing in the race with two weeks to go.
“I know this league pretty well and it’s never over,” the coach said. “Thirty (conference) games (make) a true champion, and it’s a balanced schedule. It’s the way it should be. Everybody plays each other, so we’re still in it.”
With the Bruins trying to close the season strong, it has been the commanding performances of two workhorses that have allowed the team to get out to fast starts in recent weeks. UCLA has won the opening two games of its last five series, with juniors Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig starting on the mound. The team has swept its last two series, a trend it will look to continue on the road against USC (19-30, 10-14).
“We’ve won a lot of Fridays and Saturdays as of late, and we capitalized last weekend,” Vander Tuig said. “The whole Pac-12 is really good and every weekend is a grind against them. … We know what we’re going to get from them and they know what they’re going to get from us.”
Vander Tuig picked up his team-leading ninth win of the season in last week’s sweep. Meanwhile, Plutko made a move of his own last week, moving into a tie for third on the school’s all-time win list, picking up the 26th win of his career.
“In terms of wins and careers, those two guys have been pretty darn good and it’s not over yet,” Savage said. “They’re special.”
As if crosstown bragging rights between the rivals isn’t enough, USC comes in with the added motivation of trying to avoid a late contribution to a Pac-12 title for UCLA. In 2012, the Bruins earned the conference crown by sweeping the Trojans during the final weekend of the season.
The Trojans come in as winners of two of their last three conference series, but are also well under .500 in conference play and have already lost a non-conference game to the Bruins earlier this season. While freshman reliever James Kaprielian admits the game carries added significance for him, he said the team will keep with its approach all season as the race nears its final turn.
“It’s obviously fun because it’s ‘SC, and we look forward to that, especially for me … my whole family being Trojans,” Kaprielian said. “This is a big one for me, but at the end of the day it’s another game we just have to play.”