The pressure is on and there's no doubt about it. The last time the national media heaped praise on the Bruins as prior to the 2008 season and that one ended in disappointment. Unfortunately, the UCLA baseball program, going back long before John Savage became the head coach, has a history of underachieving. Teams stacked with talent and busting at the seams with future professional players came together for thoroughly average teams year after year. That was also the case at the beginning of the John Savage era, but there is a distinctly difference feel to the team this year. They are 21-0 and now get ready for Pac-10 play, which begins tonight, with one thing on their minds.
"We're 0-0. We know that haven't accomplished anything yet. "
That's been the quote out of players and coaches for a week now. Undefeated is nice, but once Pac-10 play begins, they're 0-0 again and that's the attitude UCLA is taking into the conference season. It's a different attitude than past UCLA teams and puts them in a good position to succeed, but just that attitude is not enough.
"We have to remain consistent. The Pac-10, I think, is the best conference in baseball this year from top to bottom," Coach Savage said. "You look at the RPI, you look at the records, you look at what people have done on the road. I think you would have to say that it is the strongest conference in the country so every week is going to be very challenging."
A year after one of its worst seasons ever, the Pac-10 is back with a vengeance this season. The nation's last two undefeated teams both reside in the Pac-10, UCLA and Arizona St. The conference is also home to Oregon St., 16th in the country, Arizona, 20th in the country, and Stanford, 26th in the country. Oregon has shocked everyone with a 18-8 record against a schedule with 16 road games so far in the second year since the program was revived. Washington St. has picked up where they left off after last year's Regional appearance with a 14-7 record. Even the conference's bottom three teams, Washington, Cal and USC, have records over .500, giving the Pac-10 ten teams who have won more than they've lost against what BoydsWorld.com calls the toughest schedules any conference in the country has faced.
Needless to say, the Pac-10 will challenge the Bruins. Each and every weekend presents a new challenge that will put the Bruins to a test. After thoroughly dominating teams game in and game out to start the season, the Bruins came back to earth a bit in the past week with three competitive games against Cal Poly before a one-run win on Tuesday over Pepperdine. That doesn't concern Coach Savage one bit, though.
"At our level it's about winning the game. If you beat somebody 9-2 or 3-2 it's still as equally impressive. There have been some lopsided scores. We knew that from here on out theres going to be a lot of tight games. It's West coast baseball. There are too many players on the West that you don't run through a series and beat them 40-5. Any time you play well and come out on top that's the goal."
That doesn't mean that there weren't problems with the Bruins' play last week. Coach Savage noted that the batters did leave runners on base and the pitchers walked too many batters. Gerrit Cole was the poster boy for the lack of control, walking five and throwing three wild pitches in a single inning last week, but things have been ironed out. Cole threw a bullpen on Sunday and another one on Monday and looked good in both. The rest of the team put in good work and now it's time to keep on playing what is a very long season.
"It's baseball so bad games are bound to happen. You get run out there enough, you're going to have some bumps in the road. The real thing is how you bounce back and play in close games," said Coach Savage.
The bumps in the road haven't hit the Bruins yet. Sure, they haven't always played their best, but at 21-0, they haven't had their bumps yet. They have had their share of close game though and at 4-0 in such ballgames, they've answered that question with absolute certainty. The question now becomes how they finally take care of that thing that's been hanging over the program since their Super Regional appearance in 2007 and preseason #1 rankings in 2008. That's getting to Omaha for the College World Series and in Coach Savage's mind, the best way to do that is to host a Regional and Super Regional.
"I think it is the right path to Omaha. It's proven year after year that it's the right way, percentage wise to get to Omaha. You can get to Omaha without hosting the Regionals or Super Regionals but the numbers say that the teams playing at home are the ones more likely to get there.We keep on playing as well as we are, we sure hope to. I haven't sat down with the admininstration at this stage, but that would be my vision if we do well in conference and were in position to do that."
The numbers Coach Savage spoke of ring loud and clear. Obviously they're not the truest of numbers because the hosts are usually the teams found to be the best teams in the country so they are more likely to make it to Omaha regardless of where the games are played, but it does help. All of the talk about hosting means nothing if the Bruins don't play well and earn the #1 seed necessary to host.
Over the past four seasons, the Bruins have the second-best Pac-10 record, behind only Arizona St. They have managed that with four consecutive third-place finishes in conference play, but that's not the goal this season. While a third-place finish could very well still earn the Bruins a Regional host spot, UCLA has its sights aimed squarely on taking the Pac-10 crown away from three-time champions, Arizona St. If the past four years are any indication, it will take 21 wins out of 27 games to do that. With a stronger conference this year, especially at the bottom, than in years past, that number may drop by a game or two, but that 21 game number is the goal.
The advantage of hosting a Regional does not come with just the comforts of sleeping at home or the field dimensions and quirks that come with each ballpark, but also the friendly crowd that greets the team at the game. On Tuesday, Jackie Robinson Stadium welcomed the largest crowd for a midweek game in recent memory to see the Bruins top Pepperdine. The attendance for last Saturday's series finale against Cal Poly was also of the size normally reserved for sunny days later in the season, when attendance increases. While the attendance numbers don't match those seen at Fullerton or Long Beach St., crowds topping 1,000 could be on the horizon with the conference season upon us. It is clear that Bruin fans are excited about this team and so is the team.
"Guys feel good about the way things are going and to get to where we want to get to and that's Omaha in June," Coach Savage made clear. "It's all about the next several months so we feel good about what we've started but we know we have to finish it."