OMAHA -- Of the 108 national titles UCLA's prestigious athletic department had entering the CWS Championship Series, zero belonged to the Bruins baseball program.
Now UCLA has 109 overall national titles, thanks to the baseball program, after beating Mississippi State in dominant fashion, 8-0, in Game 2 of the title series, outscoring the gritty Bulldogs 11-1 in the series.
"This team did it the hard way. It's just a credit to our players and assistant coaches. There was a chip and edge, people talked about the ballpark and fly balls, but it was just good baseball," UCLA coach John Savage said. "We pitched, played defense, and had some quality at bats tonight. When we do our offense, too, we're as good as there is out there, too."
As the Bruins filed into the press conference room and sat down at the podium, smiles on their faces, after the game, junior right-handed pitcher Nick Vander Tuig sat to the right of John Savage. Savaged was quickly asked for an opening statement, but realized the National Championship trophy was blocking the camera's view of him.
"Here, you deserve this," Savage said to Vander Tuig.
Indeed he did, indeed they did.
Looking to capture the program's first national title after fellow junior right-handed pitcher Adam Plutko tossed a gem in the series opener against Mississippi State, the Bruins looked to Vander Tuig, who dominated North Carolina State his last time out in Omaha. After that performance, N.C. State shortstop Trea Turner commended Vander Tuig's elite command, and ability to control the zone.
Vander Tuig didn't disappoint with the national title on the line. The outstanding righty struck out six, walked just one batter and allowed just five hits in eight shutout innings. Amazingly, MSU reached third base just once in the game, in the fifth inning.
Vander Tuig had his usual steady diet of pitches. He commanded an 89-92 fastball very well, along with his outstanding 78-80 changeup and mid-to-upper 70s downer curveball. Much like the Wolfpack, and like plenty of other teams this season, the Bulldogs had zero answer for Vander Tuig.
"I think our guys had a little extra here. We knew we had a good defense at the end of the day, and Vander Tuig was as sharp as he's ever been," Savage said. "That's our style of play, and he threw very well. So much credit goes to our players, and they've earned this."
While Vander Tuig and closer David Berg, who finished out the contest, shined for the UCLA pitching staff, as has been the case so much this season, it was incredibly fitting that the Bruins offense created some major distance from the Bulldogs as the game progressed.
The Bruins had been the talk of the College World Series entering the title series against the Bulldogs, and not in a good way from an offensive standpoint. Opportunistic was the term used most often about the Bruins, but facts were facts, and the Bruins got the job done, scoring eight runs in the finale. Amazingly, UCLA finished the CWS with 19 total runs, the lowest run total for a national championship team in the history of college baseball, while also having the most sacrifice bunts (12) since Santa Clara in 1962. Fact is, the Bruins like their style.
In the title clincher, the Bruins started the game offensively on a high note with a sacrifice fly in the first inning by hot-hitting outfielder Eric Filia, who finished the postseason with a .444 batting average, including two hits and five RBIs in the win over the Bulldogs. Meanwhile, the Bruins tacked on two more runs in the third and fourth innings, taking a 5-0 lead into the final few frames, and total control of the contest.
"Offensively, we did what we needed to do. We were very capable and this was an unusual game for us. It goes to show you, we're capable," Savage said. "There's a lot of heart on the mound, on the field, and with a lot of pieces with this team. This wasn't one guy, or a lot of star power. This was a group of guys. UCLA should be very proud of it."
Coincidentally, the UCLA pitching staff shined the whole way to the national title, surrendering only one run in the two games they played against the Bulldogs, while also, astonishingly, allowing just one run or less in all five CWS games.
UCLA finished the NCAA postseason 44-14 against its opponents. Simply dominating, and becoming the third-straight team, including South Carolina and Arizona, to go undefeated through the NCAA postseason, the Bruins going 10-0 on the Road to Omaha.
This was a special UCLA team to watch on the road to its first national title. The Bruins didn’t have a Gerrit Cole or Trevor Bauer in the weekend rotation, and this club certainly didn’t have the big-time hitter that some are accustomed to, though, first baseman Pat Gallagher, who finished the season red-hot at the plate, would have you confused with his impressive performances over the past few weeks.
The Bruins had some outstanding role players. Starting pitchers Adam Plutko, Nick Vander Tuig and Grant Watson put together a total effort, not only in the regular season, but especially here in Omaha with the trio being dominant. Meanwhile, in the field, shortstop Pat Valaika's defensive prowess here at TD Ameritrade Park will forever be remembered, while the uncanny ability, or so it seemed, of leadoff hitter Brian Carroll to get on base was impressive. There's also former Orange County high school hits leader Eric Filia, who had an elite showing in the CWS.
Last, but certainly not least, there's second baseman Cody Regis. In the days leading up to the CWS, Savage pinpointed Regis as a guy he thought would rise to the occasion on the big stage. After all, Regis is the lone holdover on this team from the 2010 club that lost to South Carolina in the CWS Championship Series.
Though Regis only tallied a batting average of .250 in Omaha, he had an on-base percentage of .400 and was outstanding defensively, turning some great double plays, while also showing good range. It only was fitting that Regis, who had struggled at the plate much of the spring, shined in his final hurrah with the Bruins, recording two hits against the Bulldogs on the way to the national title.
"We're very proud of Cody. He's the only true senior we have and Cody was devastated in 2010 as a freshman. He wasn't drafted his junior year, he wasn't drafted his senior year, but he's had a great career," Savage said. "He went to Omaha three times, the most in the history of the school, now he has a national title.
"It just goes to show that some guys that go to school or stay in school get rewarded," he continued. "He's a great story, and there are others. David Berg was a walk-on, Vander Tuig had Tommy John surgery his senior year in high school, Filia is the all-time hits leader in Orange County. All of these guys on this team embraced their roles, and now they're the best team playing."
As the door shuts on yet another college baseball season, we're reminded about John Savage's story to us last week, where he truly believed this club had the national title type of feeling after getting through what he called the "gauntlet" of San Diego, Cal Poly, and of course, Cal State Fullerton in NCAA Super Regional action.
The players, though, had been thinking about this moment well before that.
After a weight-lifting session in the JD Morgan Athletic Center earlier this spring, Nick Vander Tuig and a host of other UCLA players specifically noticed that amongst all the national championship trophies in the Hall of Champions, and on the national title big board, something was missing -- baseball.
The Bruins set out to change that this season, and succeeded.
"It's been an elusive one [a baseball national title] at UCLA. It's been kind of interesting when you look at the quality of players we've had over the years, and it hadn't happened for some reason. When we brought John [Savage] in, we knew it would require a process," UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, a former Bruins player, said. "We allowed four runs in five games against some of the greatest teams in the country in this tournament. We may not be the most exciting team, but we know what kind of team we are, and John created the type of discipline and team capable of winning the national title."
The next time the Bruins baseball players trek through the Morgan Center to workout, they'll look up on the wall, and there across the wall, will say "109 national titles".
This time, because of them, one of those will be for baseball.
CWS Snapshot: Mississippi State vs. UCLA
Player of the game: RHP Nick Vander Tuig, UCLA -- Who else could possibly be the player of the game for the Bruins? Though the offense certainly did their job on this night, Vander Tuig once again was terrific for the Bruins. He struck out six, walked one and allowed just five hits in eight shutout innings of work. He also threw 117 pitches, 77 for strikes, and ended the College World Series allowing just one run in 15 innings of work.
Turning point: We've said it several times by now, but when facing the Bruins, it's important to not fall behind early in the contest. Well, the Bruins took a 1-0 lead in the first inning, but things really turned for the worse for the Bulldogs in the third and fourth innings. The Bruins got a sacrifice fly from Eric Filia and an RBI single from Pat Valaika in the third inning, before scoring a pair of runs in the fourth inning on a sacrifice fly by Kevin Kramer, and an RBI single from Cody Regis. Up 5-0 after four innings, the Bruins went to work on the mound, and it was over.
What they said: "First of all, I thought UCLA played a great ballgame, and we didn't. Really proud of our kids, you know. I think we what we did was knocked on the door and UCLA has knocked on the door before, several times, and they knocked down the door and we didn't do that. But really proud of our players; they worked incredibly hard to get here. Many of these guys came to Mississippi State under pretty adverse conditions in a program that was the not in great condition. Five years ago we inherited a club that won 23 ballgames. They climbed all the way to the top and we didn't finish the deal and that's disappointing, but certainly I'm proud of our players. I could breakdown the ballgame, but it probably doesn't matter. We're incredibly disappointed in today and yesterday, but obviously not in our body of work for the year." -- Mississippi State coach John Cohen