"We're trying to get all the bullets in the gun."
That's what guides UCLA's preparation for this weekend's Los Angeles Regional said Bruin head coach John Savage. With a difficult Regional on tap and high expectations as the number six national seed, UCLA has to make sure the week counts so they can make the weekend count. That work didn't start immediately though. At first, the team was no different than any fan tuning in to watch the NCAA Selection Show.
When the Selection Show comes on each Memorial Day, fans around the country watch with butterflies in their stomachs. Will their teams get national seeds? Will they even get in the postseason? Who will they play? The Selection Show starts by announcing the national seeds, then the brackets are revealed and guess what? The players and coaches are no different than the fans as they tune in to see their path to Omaha. When UCLA got together, they went through the same things that the fans did.
"The first thought was the excitement and how proud I was to be a national seed," Savage said. "The players were ecstatic and there was a sense of accomplishment. That was our first reaction. The second reaction was our guys were very excited when they saw Kent State, LSU and Irvine."
Once that excitement wears off, it's time for the coaches and players to get to work. For all the excitement that such a high profile Regional brings, it also brings with it some very good teams that presents the Bruins with a huge challenge.
"24 hours after that I realized how difficult of a Regional it was after looking at all the other Regionals," Savage explained. "Looking at RPI's, looking and what other national seeds got. Looking at how the 2 and 3 seeds were placed. I think it is the toughest Regional."
There's no doubt that the Bruins are facing a difficult road out of their own Regional. With three top-25 teams in Los Angeles, it ranks as the toughest Regional in the country. Few would argue that UCLA got a raw deal from the NCAA though. While one of the better two seeds, LSU is appropriately seeded at two and the same goes for UC Irvine as a three seed. Sure, the Bruins are dealing with some of the better teams at their respective seed lines, but they are on the correct seed line. That doesn't mean it will be easy, though.
One thing that the Bruins will have over the other three teams is home-field advantage. While there is a lot of talk about how many LSU fans are going to make it out to the games, UCLA will certainly have the advantage of being familiar with their surroundings.
"We have played well at home this year, but when you see a 19-4 road record you're going 'wow, that's pretty good,' but when you're 24-9 at home you feel pretty good about it. We know the ballpark better than anybody. The way the ball plays, the way the ball travels, the mound, the home plate area, the dimensions, the shadows. Jackie (Robinson Stadium) is a big shadow ballpark during the day and early evening."
That advantage will have to counter an advantage that LSU, UC Irvine and Kent St. will have over the Bruins. Last postseason, Kent St. won a game in the Tempe Regional. UC Irvine got four games under their belts, a year after playing in a Super Regional and two years after going to Omaha as a College World Series participant. LSU was the last team standing a year ago and brought home the national championship. Meanwhile, UCLA had to stay home and watch the postseason from their couch after not earning a Regional bid.
Two of UCLA's four starting pitchers have not played in the postseason, neither has their closer and the middle relief isn't packed with experience. Of the 12 position players to record over 50 at-bats during the regular season, only three have significant postseason experience. While their competition knows just what to expect this weekend, UCLA has little to no idea.
"You really don't know how guys are going to react in the postseason until you get into the postseason. There was a lot of excitement and good crowds where we played this season and that will really helps our younger guys," but Savage made clear that they're going to lean on experienced coaches and players.
"I think they have a bunch of experience around them. They have coaches who have been to Omaha and won national championships. We have guys who have played in Super Regionals on this roster that will bring a lot of experience and calm to the team. I think it's going to be fun to see how those young guys react."
The guiding theme to the postseason is that winning a game is not enough. Winning a Regional is not enough. The program is thinking big and they want to be in Omaha. That is the goal and it starts this weekend when a trio of tough teams come to Los Angeles. All of that starts by getting all their bullets this week.
"We're in it to win it," said Savage with the message that "we're going to use all of our bullets."