LOS ANGELES — Pat Valaika’s knee is still sore from Tuesday night. He didn’t trip rounding third or slip turning a double play, the UCLA shortstop suffered the minor injury while in the midst of a celebratory dog pile in the middle of Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park following the Bruins’ NCAA championship win over Mississippi State.
It hurt so good.
One could say that was theme of the season.
Although it was the second-straight trip to the College World Series in Omaha, it almost wasn’t a season to remember. A team average of just .250 made for a trying season for one of the best pitching staffs in the country. A draft snub for the ace of that staff, Adam Plutko, made for an emotional Super Regional.
But when the last out fell, none of that mattered.
“No one thought we were going to win anything. Even from our own regional we were hosting,” Valaika said. “Everyone kept doubting us and we used it as a little fuel. We’re just going to do it our own way.
“We’re just going to keep hitting .250 but we’re national champions so you can’t say anything about it.”
It was the first NCAA baseball championship in UCLA’s illustrious championship history. Unlikely? Maybe. A few members of the team are still in awe with the performance. They faced four of the best teams in the country and four of the most fervent fan bases in each of the five games played in Omaha.
But they enjoyed shocking everyone along the way.
“That dugout was against the entire ballpark and it felt that way almost every game,” said head coach John Savage. “I think they embraced it.”
“It felt like we were playing in Louisiana or Starkville (Miss.),” said reliever David Berg. “But sometimes it’s more fun to silence a crowd than it is to pump one up.”
The Bruins shattered several records starting with Berg. The sophomore closer’s 24 saves was a new NCAA record. Right-handers Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig became the winningest pitching combination in UCLA history behind current major leaguers Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer.
The light-hitting Bruins used a College World Series record 12 sacrifices and became the first team to ever limit all CWS opponents to only a single run per game.
“This team just got into the right things. They were competitive; they weren’t distracted. They kept their head in it,” Savage said. “It felt like winning time.”
On Thursday afternoon, the team was on hand at Dodger Stadium. They watched as the Philadelphia Phillies took batting practice and conversed with several players on both teams. Dodgers’ skipper Don Mattingly, admittedly unfamiliar with the college game, did his homework on the 2013 Bruins. He lauded Savage’s ability to tutor quality arms.
Former Bruin Chase Utley congratulated Savage and the rest of the team while Vander Tuig, a recent San Francisco Giants draft pick, did his best to hide the Los Angeles cap the rest of the team was sporting.
Fans, Dodger brass and the baseball community alike all lined up to congratulate the team on its title. But while the honor of the best baseball team in Southern California has officially been bestowed on UCLA, the Bruins are still trying to grasp the reality of their accomplishment.
“It’s still surreal, I don’t think it’s set in yet,” Plutko said. “I honestly can’t put it into words. It was pure excitement and it’s just something that you have to work the whole entire year for to understand what that excitement actually is.”
“They weren’t the favorite,” Savage said. “But this group will always be named as the first team to ever win a national championship at UCLA in baseball, so they will be a special group forever and ever.