UCLA makes history with CWS title
OMAHA, Neb. -- The old UCLA second baseman stood near home plate with a lump in his throat and two mini-trophies under his left arm as a video homage to the Bruins played on the scoreboard beyond right field.
Dan Guerrero didn't say a word. He hardly moved until a shot of Cody Regis flashed on the screen. The Bruins' senior second baseman, Regis took a hard grounder and flipped the ball from his glove to shortstop Pat Valaika to start a slick double play.
With that, Guerrero unleashed a quick whoop. The 61-year-old UCLA athletic director has stood on this stage many times -- but never quite like Tuesday.
Regis, Valaika and that great staff of UCLA pitchers beat Mississippi State 8-0 to earn the Bruins' first national title in baseball with a two-game sweep of the CWS finals before a stadium-record crowd at TD Ameritrade Park.
The trophy is headed back to Westwood on Wednesday. It will sit among an unmatched 108 others in the UCLA Hall of Champions.
To Guerrero and a Bruin baseball family that includes former greats Eric Karros, Chris Chambliss, Troy Glaus, Chase Utley, Eric Byrnes and the heirs of Jackie Robinson, this victory was long overdue.
"It's so near and dear to my heart because I wore the uniform," Guerrero said as players and coaches celebrated around him. "This is a proud moment."
His fingerprints are all over UCLA baseball. The AD hired coach John Savage first in 2002 at UC Irvine, then in 2005 at UCLA. Together, they envisioned the events of Tuesday night more than a decade ago.
Savage and Guerrero figured it would eventually happen in this fashion. After all, when AD met coach, Savage was a promising assistant. He toiled in the era of Gorilla Ball, winning a national championship alongside Mike Gillespie at USC in 1998 with a 21-14 win over Arizona State.
Nevertheless, their vision remained clear.
UCLA finished 15-41 in Savage's first year. It made a regional in 2006, a super regional in 2007 and visited Omaha for just the third time ever in 2010.
The Bruins returned last year after the CWS moved out of Rosenblatt Stadium into these cavernous downtown digs. By then, it was only a matter of time before Savage's bunch of fundamental freaks got their trophy.
In the first four innings on Tuesday as UCLA built a 5-0 lead, it was hit by three pitches, capitalized on three errors -- including two on a first-inning bunt -- scored on two sacrifice flies and a squeeze bunt.
No team had overcome a CWS deficit of more than four runs in three years at this stadium. It wasn't about to happen Tuesday at the end of a 14-game series that yielded three home runs.
"Practice," said Savage, whose team did not homer and hit just .227 in Omaha. "That's what we do. You have to do it in practice, in front of the coaches. We got better in this tournament. And that was one of our goals.
"We did it the right way. We pitched. We played defense. We had quality offense. Opportunistic offense, for sure. And at the end of the day, we outlasted everybody."
He said the Bruins made the most of Saturday and Sunday, practice days as they awaited the best-of-three finals.
"It's preparation," said right fielder Eric Filia, who finished Tuesday with five RBIs on the squeeze, a sac fly and two singles. "One through nine, we can all execute. Like coach said, we all practice it, from day one to today. It's details. It's just those little details that really matter in the end."
Last year, Arizona allowed eight runs in five games en route to the title. The Bruins, 10-0 this postseason, scoffed at that, surrendering just four in 45 CWS innings, not to mention a super-regional shutout of powerhouse Cal State Fullerton to clinch the trip back to Omaha.
Nick Vander Tuig fired eight innings in the finale. And David Berg pitched the ninth, as always, tying an NCAA record with his 51st appearance of the season one night after he notched his record 24th save.
Berg, after the victory, spoke of how the Bruins took pride in cleaning the team bus this year.
Again, the details. It's the Savage way. The Bruin way.
"When you don't pick each other up and make sure you are covering every detail," Berg said, "that's when you can get bit. That's what made our team great. We cover the details."
Before the season began in February, the Bruins gathered in the weight room and walked as a team to view a list of the championships won by UCLA programs. They saw golf and basketball and water polo, softball and tennis and gymnastics. Others, too.
"We went to baseball," Vander Tuig said, "and there was none."
Savage, just the third man to coach UCLA baseball since 1946, told them it was time to make a mark on that board -- to bring a trophy home to the Hall of Champions.
"We believed we were the best team in the country from the get-go," Regis said.
They proved it here. In the sports mecca around its home base, UCLA baseball continues to rank as an afterthought. Nothing about that changed on Tuesday, as Doc Rivers, Metta World Peace and Yasiel Puig dominated the Los Angeles headlines.
But for a night, the Bruins mattered. After the video that tugged at heart of the athletic director and the trophy presentation and all the hugs on the field, a few UCLA players returned to the infield.
They fell on their backs, spread their arms and stared into the Nebraska night, refusing to let go of the moment.
In the distance, Guerrero soaked it up, a national championship hat atop his head. His mind drifted to those early days with Savage -- the struggles and their grand vision.
"This is something," the athletic director said, "that we dreamed from the very beginning."