UCLA came together time and time again when they could have easily folded en route to one of the best regular seasons in school history (Photo Credit: Scott Wu)
The 2012 regular season might have been the finest in UCLA baseball history. Some will point to 2010, 2000, 1997 or go back to 1969, but all of those teams would have a hard time matching up against this year's Bruins.
UCLA finished the season 42-14 against the fourth toughest schedule in the country, including series wins against Baylor and Arizona St and road series wins against Arizona and Georgia. They are Pac-12 co-champions in one of the most top-heavy seasons the Pac-12 has ever had with four teams from the conference earning Regional hosts and a fifth that might have been had they not been ineligible for the postseason. Finally, on Selection Monday they were rewarded for that season with the number two national seed, the highest that UCLA has ever gotten.
Amazingly, as incredible as the Bruins' 2012 regular season was, it started as a nightmare. They dropped two out of three on the opening weekend of the season to Maryland. That is the same Maryland team that went just 10-20 in the ACC and hasn't been to the postseason since 1971. Worst of all, they did it looking very much like the 2011 Bruins with a faltering bullpen and high strikeout, power absent offense.
The Bruins looked even worse in their series opener the following weekend too. Baylor took UCLA out behind the woodshed and by the time nine painful innings were over, it was 15-3. The offense was a mess, the bullpen was as inexperienced as could be and now the starting pitching, absent Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole, looked shaky.
But the Bruins would not die. First they beat Baylor on Saturday to even the series, then needing a Sunday win to win the series and make a statement, they turned their season around. Down 6-4 in the eighth inning, UCLA found a rund, then Cody Regis hit a two-out, two-RBI double. The Bruins would go on to beat the Bears, 8-6, and with one double, the season had turned.
After an easy weekend against Sacramento St., the Bruins faced their first road test of the season at Georgia and passed with flying colors. Adam Plutko threw a five-hit complete game shutout and UCLA was on their way to a sweep of the Bulldogs. They backed that up with a home series win against Arizona St. and the Bruins were off. Washington St. went down and so did Utah. A defense of their Pac-12 title looked very much a real possibility just a month after they were waxed by Baylor and left for dead.
With the Pac-12 looking like one of, if not the toughest conference in the country, the Bruins weren't just going to run through it, though. Having won 18 of their last 20, UCLA looked above getting smacked in the mouth, but Oregon proved they weren't. They took the first two games of the series from the Bruins at Jackie Robinson Stadium and made UCLA battle just not to get swept.
The doubt in the Bruins was back. They lost ground in the Pac-12, their offense went quiet and their pitching didn't hold up against an elite opponent. To make matters worse, a trip to conference leading Arizona was up next and a 4-3 loss on Friday night didn't help matters, but consecutive wins, including a 15-3 demolition of the Wildcats on Saturday earned the Bruins a crucial series win that made them elite again.
The Bruins' up and down month of April continued. Just when it looked like they were trending up after their trip to Tucson, they lost consecutive series to Oregon St. and Stanford. They were falling further and further behind in the Pac-12 title race and their credentials as a Regional host were in doubt.
That brought Purdue to Jackie Robinson Stadium, a Big 10 team who wasn't supposed to be a major challenge when they were scheduled, but had proven themselves to be one of the best in the country. They were highly ranked and not just "Big 10 good", but legitimately really good. UCLA took the first two games of the series, but both games were close. Sunday didn't look so close, with the Bruins running away with things, but then the ninth inning happened.
UCLA entered the ninth inning up 10-5, but by the time it was over, Purdue held a 15-10 lead. To call the inning a disaster would be a massive understatement. The bullpen, which entered the season full of doubts, but had performed so well all year, had imploded.
Even though they had let the sweep slip through their hands, UCLA still had won the series and were looking like a good bet to host a Regional. They had some work to do in the Pac-12, but they had an easy schedule to finish the season. On paper, all looked well, but the Bruins had just been punched in the gut. Put the wins and losses aside, the ninth inning on Sunday against Purdue was a character test for the Bruins.
UCLA had already proven to be a good team. The offense was exceptional, executing time and time again to move runners along, string together hits and even if lacking home run power, they had nine guys every game who could put the ball in a gap and change a game. The bullpen was one of the best in the conference and sealed up games all year long, even if it was heart-stopping at times. Even the starting pitching was strong enough, with Adam Plutko establishing himself as a legitimate ace and Nick Vander Tuig and Zack Weiss keeping the team in games week in, week out.
Whether the Bruins were an elite team would be determined by how they responded from their struggles. They had done it earlier in the season, against Baylor, Arizona and earlier in the weekend against Purdue, but not quite how they would have to after the 10-run ninth inning. How they bounced back this time would define this team.
One win, two wins, three wins. UCLA bounced back form the Purdue debacle in a big win, winning seven straight, including a sweep at Washington and series win at Cal. They were back in the conference title race and had proven that if nothing else, this team had as much mental toughness as any team in the country.
The Bruins' conference title hopes came down to the last weekend and, luckily for them, they were playing USC. Three wins later, their 19th in their 24 games against their crosstown rivals, and UCLA were Pac-12 co-champions.
A season that started horribly against Maryland, had threatened to go downhill on several occasions, most notably against Purdue, had finished wonderfully. They had back-to-back conference titles for their first time in school history and the number two national seed.
The Bruins hit .310 as a team, led by Jeff Gelalich's .367 with nine home runs and 15 stolen bases. Players like Tyler Heineman and Kevin Williams stepped up and the experienced junior class that included Gelalich, Cody Keefer, Trevor Brown and Beau Amaral emerged as leaders. A handful of freshmen like Kevin Kramer, Shane Zeile and Eric Filia-Snyder stepped up when called upon and Grant Watson worked an incredible 85.2 innings as both a starter and reliever. The bullpen, which had zero experience at the beginning of the season, ended up as a major strength of the team thanks to the rubber armed David Berg, tough Ryan Deeter, heart-stopping Scott Griggs and a handful of other lesser used relievers who got outs whenever asked to.
In the end, the Bruins turned in one of the best, if not the best regular season in school history. It wasn't easy, and all of their almost-pitfalls proved it, but great teams aren't defined by what they do when it is easy. Great teams are defined by what they do when times are tough and UCLA has proven to be a great team, but now comes the postseason. It's time to prove they are great once, two, maybe three more times again.