FULLERTON, Calif. — The UCLA Bruins are headed to college baseball’s promised land for the second year in a row.
No. 8 UCLA eliminated No. 3 Cal State Fullerton from the posteason Saturday night with a 3-0 shutout in the second game of the Fullerton Super Regional at Goodwin Stadium. The Bruins advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., for the second-straight year and for the third time in four years.
All weekend, UCLA made the impossible look possible. The Bruins handed the Titans – a team that won 51 games this season – their first series loss of the season and did so on the Titans’ home turf.
“Whenever you get to Fullerton and win two games to beat what I think is the best team in the country says a lot about their character, their discipline, their habits – you name it, we did,” said UCLA coach John Savage. “I think we earned it … On to Omaha.”
On paper, the Bruins’ team batting average, ranked 250th in the country, didn’t look like much but all weekend UCLA found ways to extract the most out of the baserunners they did get on. Saturday, the Bruins wasted no time in jumping on Fullerton starter Thomas Eshelman (12-3).
The Collegiate Baseball Freshman Pitcher of the Year was impressive, going the distance for the Titans and striking out five, but he gave up three runs, all unearned, in the first inning, and was ultimately dealt with the loss.
“Gave them some opportunities in the first inning by making a couple mistakes,” said Fullerton (51-10) coach Rick Vanderhook. “They got a couple base hits right up the middle kind of put the peddle on us in the first and that was it.”
With two outs in the first, a first base error kept the inning alive. Pat Valaika then singled and Kevin Williams reached on another error. Pat Gallagher then singled to the gap to drive in two. Shane Zeile’s RBI single gave the Bruins a 3-0 lead they defense would hold.
“I sort of felt like Eshelman hadn’t been in that situation maybe,” Valaika said. “We just kept battling him and kept trying to put the ball in play and it all worked out.”
Vander Tuig (12-4) was lights out for UCLA. The junior right-hander tossed six and 2/3 innings of shutout ball for the win.
It wasn’t the same UCLA (44-17) team as College World Series teams of the past, but it’s a team that continues to find ways to win.
“I don’t want to say this team was a rebuilding team, because it wasn’t,” Savage said. “This year it’s been different. We’re hitting over .250 as a team as I said last night we’re becoming a tougher-minded offensive team.”
Changing of the guard
In 2008, the Titans hosted Stanford in the Super Regional round and were swept by the Cardinal. Then-head coach Dave Serrano, a former Titan, was shocked, saying, “That’s why kids come to Cal State Fullerton, to go to the College World Series.”
That might be why kids are now going to UCLA.
“Not many people can say they’ve been to Omaha two out of three years they’ve been in college,” said UCLA pitcher Nick Vander Tuig. “It’s been fun and we’re not done yet.”
Savage has built the program into a formidable powerhouse. Last week, San Diego head coach Rich Hill called the program a “juggernaut”. It’s the new era in Southern California college baseball.
The two schools are separated by only about 40 miles yet have vastly different profiles. UCLA of the BCS Pac-12 Conference, its baseball program often overshadowed by football and basketball even in down years. Cal State Fullerton’s winning tradition started back in the 1970s and its tradition and popularity are unmatched in the sport.
But the Titans haven’t been to Omaha since 2009 – the longest College World Series drought in program history. The last time Fullerton reached the Super Regionals was in 2010 – when they fell to UCLA in Westwood. Not to mention, Vanderhook was a former assistant and longtime friend of Savage.
The roles have reversed, as UCLA is now the premiere program. This series may have potentially been the start of a new rivalry.
There were plenty of performances to remember in the series but one player in particular pushed through to complete his Titan career on a high note.
First baseman Carlos Lopez suffered a hit to the head prior to the game and still managed to go 2-for-5. Lopez made two uncharacteristic and costly errors in the series and Vanderhook considered pulling him but nothing was going to stop the senior.
“He got drilled straight in the head, no reflection or anything,” Vanderhook said. “I don’t think he looked right all night. I tried to get him to smile once. The guy smiles 24 hours a day, the guy probably smiles in his sleep and I couldn’t even get him to smile.”