The original version of this article contained an error and has been changed. See the bottom of the article for additional information.
OMAHA, Neb. — Coach John Savage and I sat down to eat lunch somewhere in Brentwood before the season began.
I had covered UCLA baseball for the two previous seasons but I was going to be otherwise occupied during spring quarter. I knew I wouldn’t get to see many of his team’s games this season so I wanted to catch up and wish him well.
Being the class act that Savage is, he took me up on the offer and here we were at lunch. We talked about everything but naturally, the topic of the upcoming season found its way into the conversation. The Bruins had been to the College World Series in 2010, which was expected. Expectations were even higher in 2011 but they whiffed on a return trip in 2011 because they couldn’t hit. They came back to Omaha last season but were bounced after just one win.
But of all the teams that I had seen in my four years as a student, surely this wasn’t one that would make another trip to the Midwest in June. I told Savage that much. The top five hitters in his lineup had been drafted and wouldn’t be returning to Westwood.
Yet five months later, here we were again in the tunnel of TD Ameritrade Park after UCLA had just beaten North Carolina State to remain undefeated in Omaha and in the driver’s seat of its half of the bracket.
“I just knew that we lost a lot of good players,” Savage recalled of our preseason conversation. “We lost our entire outfield. We lost our catcher. We lost our first baseman. We lost our closer. Who’s kidding who? We lost a lot of pieces on a very good team.”
“But these guys have just grown to play with one another. They believe in themselves and the program. You play the game because things happen sometimes and the character of these guys has really shown.”
I have long thought Savage was the best coach on campus but apparently, I wasn’t giving him nearly enough credit. Much like that 2011 team, these Bruins can’t hit. They don’t have a player batting over .300 and they’re hitting about .250 as a team. Unlike the 2011 team, this one doesn’t have two of the top five picks in the Major League draft, but they’re blazing through Omaha.
They have two runs batted in in two games but somehow, they’re making it work with pitching and defense. For a team that has averaged a shade under five runs per game, the margin of error is slight.
“We’re not knocking the door down,” Savage said. “We’re not hammering people but they’re finding a way to win and the bottom line is that’s what you want out of your club. They believe in each other and I think it just goes to show that every team that believes in each other, that pitches and plays defense, you have a shot now in college baseball.”
The improbability of this team’s run is truly astounding. Take senior second baseman Cody Regis, for example. He was the starting third baseman and home run leader on the 2010 squad that made it all the way to the championship series but his numbers have declined each season and he missed out on being drafted both last season and this one. Now, he’s about the least natural looking second baseman you could find but there he was turning a double play to help his team beat No. 4 seed LSU in its opening game.
How about sophomore catcher Shane Zeile? He had never caught a game in his life before January but Savage and his staff converted him and he has made just two errors all season.
Sophomore closer David Berg was a walk-on last season. Now, he’s tied the NCAA single-season record for saves, totes a .85 earned run average and he’s a finalist for the National Pitcher of the Year Award.
“It’s not how we drew it up a year or so ago,” Savage said. “I think it says a lot about our assistant coaches and the way they’re working with our players. It says a lot about recruiting. It’s a team effort. You win as a team, you lose as a team. At the end of the day, a lot of guys are doing their jobs and that’s all you can ask.”
There’s a constant sense of “Is this really happening?” when you watch this team play. Call it luck, call it chemistry, call it magic. I call it good baseball and something tells me these Bruins have more of it left in them.
Correction: There were two incorrect mentions of the 2010 UCLA baseball team. Both references should have identified the 2011 team.