Three consecutive trips to the College World Series can create unrealistic expectations for any program, let alone one that plays inside the fish bowl called the Southeastern Conference (SEC). (front-page photo of Niko Gallego courtesy of UCLA)
No one knows that better than South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner, whose previous trip to the fabled Nebraska soil was six years ago in 2004. It may as well have been 30 years for the Gamecock faithful, as Tanner has grown weary of the explanations and excuses of why they haven’t been back to the CWS for six seasons.
Not to worry Gamecock fans, South Carolina is back in the College World Series championship game for the second time under Tanner, trying to do something only one other team in South Carolina athletics history has done: win a national championship (after finishing as the CWS runner-up in 1975, 1977 and 2002). … Trivia answer: South Carolina won the 2002 NCAA title in women’s outdoor track and field.
UCLA has never been to the finals of the College World Series, after watching through the years as crosstown rival USC (the “other SC”) won five national titles in a row at one point under legendary coach Rod Dedeaux.
But that is in the past. UCLA is establishing a new tradition with a coaching staff that is no stranger to CWS excellence.
Head coach John Savage won a national title as an assitsant coach with USC in 1998, under Mike Gillespie, and earlier this postseason defeated his mentor Gillespie in the Los Angeles Regional to eliminate UC Irvine.
Rick Vanderhook, who runs the team offense and hitting for the Bruins, made 10 trips to the CWS while working at Cal State Fullerton, helping the Titans win national championships in 1995 and 2004.
Third base coach Steve Pearse played in the hollowed grounds of Rosenblatt while attending Fresno State in 1988.
It is a program trying to establish its own identity among an athletic department that is used to winning titles. UCLA became the first university in Division I athletics to win 100 NCAA team titles and – with the passing of legendary basketball coach John Wooden earlier this month – perhaps the Bruins (wearing a “JW” tribute on their caps) are due.
When pressed on the subject, Savage had this to say regarding the traditions and expectations of excellence when working at UCLA.
“It’s the athletic department with the most national championships in the country. It’s obviously known for a basketball school with Coach Wooden and everything he did at UCLA and all the national championships and all the NBA players. And then certainly football has a rich tradition as well, and softball and gymnastics and volleyball and golf.
“There’s all kinds of traditions there. … “Baseball never has won a national championship. Our players know that. Every day we go in the Hall of Fame Room and we go in the weight room and you see all the national championships, and baseball doesn’t have anything underneath it. So it’s, I guess, a gut-check every time you see it. And knowing that you could do something special and put it up there.
“So we take a lot of pride in our athletic department. I know the student‑athletes do. But we know that baseball has never gotten to that pinnacle of college baseball, and now that we’re in position. We look to be ready for that opportunity.”
As much noise as the SEC commands during the collegiate calendar from the national media, only two SEC schools have won national titles in college baseball: LSU (a 6-time champion) and Georgia, with its lone title in 1990.
Coming into the 2010 NCAA Tournament, the scouting report on the Gamecocks wasn’t pretty. That is unless you particularly like a team that doesn’t hit a lot of homers, has very average team speed (50 stolen bases this season), doesn’t bunt well, and is fairly average once you get past ace Blake Cooper.
Someone forgot to tell Ray Tanner and his players that they don’t play a particularly pretty brand of baseball – as they have come up large, time and time again, winning four elimination games in a row after dropping a rainsoaked, lightning-delayed thriller vs. Oklahoma on Sunday (4-3), the opening game of the CWS for both teams.
The list of SC’s victims this postseason has included Coastal Carolina, Oklahoma, Arizona State and Clemson (twice), not to mention the beefy conference slate in the SEC (which included Florida, Arkansas and Vanderbilt).
The team played so poorly (0-2) at the SEC Tourament in Hoover, Ala., that coach Tanner loaded them up on the bus and had them go through two-a-days before hosting the Columbia Regional to begin the road to Omaha.
It wasn’t the grueling preseason type of two-a-days, but a calm and collective teach-oriented process where the key points of the program were reestablished. The players bonded and were welded to a team-first approach, where they were going to fight inning-by-inning, one pitch at a time.
So both programs are battle-tested, fighting through a turbulent hiccup during the midpoint of the season.
From April 16 through May 2, the Bruins lost 7-of-11, starting with a series loss to Oregon and the turning point series versus Arizona State, when the Sun Devils swept the Bruins at home. But UCLA used the sweep to draw upon its collective strength, which has been achieved by cultivating a different mindset for the program.
Drawing upon the wisdom of sports psychologist Ken Revisa, UCLA players such as Gerrit Cole and Niko Gallego have alluded to tougher team unity and trusting each other as keys to a fabulous season – a complete turnaround from the previous season’s 25-27 campaign in which the Bruins missed the NCAAs altogether.
Cole: “There was definitely a whole new mindset. We tried to create a new identity for our team after last season. We’ve been working a lot with Ken Revisa, who has helped us out quite a bit. We kind of got together and bonded as a team. There are no ‘individual’ players on this team. Everybody is a part of the Bruin baseball.
“We tried to establish a tough mindset, a no‑quit mindset. We’re hard workers. We put in the time and effort, and we’re excited to play here and just have this opportunity. And it’s been an unbelievable experience, just a complete turnaround, 180 degrees from last year. I can’t express enough gratitude for the other 35 guys on this team to put in the same kind of emotions and just to be so driven to get here.”
Gallego: “I think we have turned around the mentality on this team … by the way we ended last year and the way we’re doing this year. So I don’t know what it was that we did, but it clicked, and we’ve got a good group of guys, and we’re just having fun.”
If you question this matchup, thinking the Bruins will roll, think again. Savage certainly knows about the athleticism that will line up in the opposing dugout beginning tonight at 6:30 central on ESPN HD.
COACH SAVAGE: :I just see a lot of tools. I can tell you that, just by watching the players. They’re fast, athletic, good arms, power. I see bigger, stronger players – and maybe that’s the coach talking. I see tremendous talent over there. I see a lot of big arms, good pitching. They have a real good pitch-plan. I think they do a real good job of creating leverage on hitters and so forth.
“Sometimes when we walk through an airport, I’m not sure what we look like. We’re not a big, strong, physical team. But it’s a group of guys that … [Laughter] You guys look alrigh, in your sweatsuits, but I’m not sure.
“I just see a very well‑coached team and a solid team across the field. Tomorrow night we’ll see that.”
… The Gamecocks had similar misfortune in the month of May, dropping key series matchups with Kentucky and Florida, not to mention the 2-and-out at the SEC Tournament.
Still, the Gamecocks have the Bruins, respect, especially the play of Jackie Bradley, Jr., and the bevy of sterling pitching performances in the postseason.
Pitcher Trevor Bauer: “I don’t know too much about their program other than the fact that they’ve been extremely successful. They have a great team. And obviously they deserve to be here. They have had an outstanding run through the playoffs this year. A tough opponent to play and we’re looking forward to it.”
Pitcher Gerrit Cole: “I’ve watched them throughout the World Series.They’re an extremely resilient team, I think is a good word to describe them. They have quite a few tremendous players, a lot of big‑game players. That complete game that Roth pitched was unbelievable. That base hit that Jackie had to keep them in the World Series … those moments are priceless.
“They’re obviously an outstanding program or else they wouldn’t be here. They’re obviously a bunch of hard workers, a bunch of non‑quitters. And you just have tremendous respect for any program that gets here and even gets in this final two.”
Shortstop Niko Gallego: “I doubled up on the people I know on South Carolina by meeting Jackie over there. I knew Whit [Merrifield] a little bit from summer ball. But we know they’re good, and we’re excited to play them.”
South Carolina has crafted its recent success with flair and style, showing they can hold a big lead (Arizona State) after jumping out of the gate with an 8-spot in the 2nd inning. They’ve also shown the ability to come back in the 9th inning (or make that the 12th inning) when down to their last at-bat and last strike facing elimination … as shown when they battled back to win versus Oklahoma.
UCLA has done it with power arms and an offense that is heating up at the right time of year, even without their 3-hole hitter Tyler Rahmatulla.
The final two wins over arch-rival Clemson was a mini-sweep for the ages, giving SEC fans more armor in the annual SEC vs. ACC battle on the message boards around the country.
According to Tanner, “This team just battled, coming into the CWS I wasn’t sure we were one of the better teams, but the players enjoy each other, they work hard and never quit. They’ve been really good to deal with … I put guys in, take guys out and they handle it. You talk about putting the team first, this group has been able to do that. They like to win, they fight to the final out.”
On the meeting with UCLA, Tanner had this to say about their counterpart in the last College World Series to ever be played at venerable Rosenblatt Stadium.
Coach Tanner: “I think there are some similarities, just looking at some numbers last night and this morning. They’ve got the power arms. We’ve got some pretty good arms and we pitch a little bit, and that’s one of the reasons we’re still playing.
“But Niko [Gallego] and [Beau] Amaral have been on base about 50-percent of the time in this tournament. [Cody] Regis has five home runs in the postseason. They’ve got a good balance, righthanded/lefthanded in their lineup. They’ve played solid defense. And they pitch up and down.
“So if their guys at the top continue to be on base, certainly it makes them very difficult to beat. And that’s kind of how we are. If we can get some guys on at the top, it makes us a lot better. It seems very simple … and [it’s] the reason I think that we’re both still alive.”
CWS Final - UCLA vs South Carolina (Tale of the Tape)
|S. Carolina||52-16||30-6||17-7||5-3||21-9||25-12 SEC||27-4||19-7||33-9||8-7||8-3||24-3|
By The Innings - CWS (UCLA vs South Carolina)
|Opp. (vs. UCLA)||28||18||7||29||41||23||46||25||20||1||238|
|Opp. (vs. USC)||34||40||33||37||22||22||35||30||27||3||283|
When UCLA or South Carolina Scores: CWS Offensive Stat Comparison
|UCLA||0-4 Runs = 6-15|
5+ Runs = 45-0
|S. Carolina||0-3 Runs = 5-11|
4+ Runs = 47-5
CWS Defensive Stat Comparison: "When Opponent Scores."
|UCLA||0-6 Runs = 47-11|
7+ Runs = 4-4
|S. Carolina||0-6 Runs = 45-11|
7+ Runs = 7-5
CWS - UCLA v South Carolina: "When Trailing After."
|UCLA||Before 4th = Lost 9 of 15|
After 5th = Lost 14 of 15
|S. Carolina||Before 4th = Lost 10 of 16|
After 5th = Lost 14 of 16
Coastal Carolina coach Garry Gilmore said it best coming out of the super regional. “[South Carolina] designed a team that has pitching and defense, and they try to just hang in there offensively. Before you know it, they hang around and hang around, and eventually they get you. They went through a period where they didn’t hit and they got beat every single time.”
That statement looms large going into the showdown versus the Bruins, as UCLA is a team that can pitch. With 11 players selected in the 2010 draft, this new west-coast power has the deepest pitching staff of any team in the country.
Righthandeders Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer can handle the game through seven innings, many times through the entire nine. When #3 starter Rob Rassmussen gets in trouble, the Bruins can call upon a trio of “firemen” to quench the sparks from an opposing rally. Those strong relievers include Garett Claypool, Dan Klein and Erik Goeddel.
If the game is close, give the nod to South Carolina, although the Bruins are 8-3 in one-run games during the 2010 season.
South Carolina is 21-17 in nine overall trips to the CWS (15-8 record in elimination games). The Gamecocks have played several one-run games over the past few weeks. UCLA also has been surging: after a 7-11 stretch in late April/early May, the Bruins have been on a 21-5 tear … so pick your poison in terms of an advantage. The slight advantage may go to to South Carolina.
Key Numbers To Consider:
• UCLA is 6-15 when scoring 0-5 runs, while Carolina is 5-11 when scoring 0-4 runs. When scoring more than 5 runs, both teams have sterling records: UCLA at 45-0 and SC at 47-5.
• As TCU demonstrated in an earlier matchup, UCLA is a different team when you score against the Bruins in the 1st inning (especially when blanking the Bruins in the opening inning). When UCLA trails after the 6th inning, they have a losing record (12 of their 15 losses have come when trailing after the sixth inning and 14 of 15 have come when trailing after 8).
How good is UCLA?
They were the only team this year to take a series versus TCU, although it wasn’t a true 3-game set as TCU had to eliminate Florida State in between their three games with UCLA. Taking nothing away from Clemson and South Carolina, it really is too bad that UCLA and TCU are not in opposite brackets.
Players To Watch:
Look for Jackie Bradley, Jr. (.375, 12 doubles, 13 HR, 60 RBI), Christian Walker (.323, 12 doubles, 9 HR, 51 RBI) and Whit Merrifield (.325, 12 doubles, 13 HR, 40 RBI) to be the most likely leaders of the Gameocks, while Beau Amaral (.360, 11 doubles, 4 HR, 31 RBI), Dean Espy (.357, 7 doubles, 9 HR, 52 RBI) and Cody Regis (.322, 17 doubles, 9 HR, 47 RBI) are probable leaders of the Bruins offense.
Although UCLA hasn’t missed a beat yet in the tournament – largely due to the outstanding pitching by Cole, Bauer and Rasmussen and the trio of closers – a small advantage for South Carolina may show up in the end of games, as UCLA is missing its team leader and #3 hitter Tyler Rahmatulla (.328, 19 doubles, 7 HR, 45 RBI), who broke his hand in the post-game celebration after defeating Fullerton in the Super Regional.
In the end, look for 7 to be a key number for both teams, as the Bruins are 4-4 this season when giving up 7+ or more and 47-11 when limiting the opponent to fewer than seven. South Carolin, by comparison, is only 7-5 when giving up 7+ and 45-11 when allowing 0-6, once again demonstrating a slight advantage to SC if the game is close.
South Carolina has proven to be comfortable in one-run ball games. The stage is set … let’s get this party rolling!