LOS ANGELES -- After nearly a century of playing at the intercollegiate level, UCLA baseball has finally arrived.
UCLA is seeded No. 2 nationally for the NCAA tournament, which begins Friday, and when the Bruins (42-14) face Creighton in the opening round of the Los Angeles Regional at Jackie Robinson Stadium, they begin their quest to back up all the recent accolades with the UCLA’s first national championship in baseball.
Should they do so, it would be only the latest in a long line of firsts the program has achieved over the past few seasons. This year, the Bruins won consecutive conference titles for the first time. Last year, pitcher Trevor Bauer became the first UCLA player ever to win the Golden Spikes Award as the nation’s top player and Gerrit Cole became the first UCLA player ever taken as the No. 1 pick in the Major League Baseball draft.
In 2010, the Bruins earned a national seeding for the NCAA tournament for the first time, were host of an NCAA regional and a Super Regional for the first time, and won a game at the College World Series for the first time.
The No. 2 seeding this year is the highest UCLA has ever been seeded for the NCAA tournament and it provides validation that the recent run of success is no fluke.
“One of our main goals when we got here was to become a national contender year in and year out,” coach John Savage said. “That is very, very difficult to do in baseball and I don’t know if we are there yet. Some people would argue yes, some would argue no.”
But at least there is an argument now.
Since its inception in 1920, the Bruins' baseball program had been an 85-year see-saw session in which the Bruins would contend for conference titles and fifth-place finishes with equal frequency. That all changed when Savage took over as coach in 2005 and built UCLA into a consistent winner that now must be considered among the nation’s top powers.
In the 58 years before Savage, UCLA had been to the College World Series only twice and had qualified for the NCAA playoffs 12 times. In the eight seasons since, Savage has taken UCLA to the NCAA playoffs six times and was two wins away from a national title in 2010.
And in conference play, the Bruins are now among the title contenders year in and year out. They have won the past two titles and have finished among the top three in the conference in seven consecutive seasons -- the longest such streak in school history.
“I think this guy has done something special and I think it’s going to continue,” said UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie, who employed Savage as a pitching coach for four seasons when he was at USC. “They are a national powerhouse. They are, and I think they are here to stay.”
In the baseball hotbed of Southern California, USC, Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State had reached prominence and Pepperdine even joined that fray on occasion, but UCLA never could gain any measure of consistency.
From 1945 to 2010, the Bruins won only five conference titles and often went a decade or more without winning one. It led to UCLA being known as a “sleeping giant” in baseball because of the access to players in Southern California coupled with its affiliation in one of the top conference in the country.
Athletic director Dan Guerrero recognized this too, and as a former UCLA baseball player made it a priority to make the baseball team a national contender. Guerrero took charge of the UCLA athletic department in 2002 and hired Savage two years later when 30-year coach Gary Adams retired.
Guerrero said the choice was a no-brainer. He had hired Savage at UC Irvine in 2000 when Guerrero was the Anteaters’ athletic director and helped reinstate baseball.
“When I first met him, I was tremendously impressed with him as a person, as a professional and in his vision of how to run a program,” Guerrero said. “So when Gary retired and I had the opportunity to hire a coach here, John was my first choice. To me, he was the guy who could bring greater success at the NCAA level and so far he’s done everything I thought he would.”
As the pitching coach at USC, he tutored such future MLB All Stars as Barry Zito and Mark Prior and was there when USC won the national title in 1998. He had an almost immediate impact at UC Irvine, taking the Anteaters to the NCAA tournament two years after starting from scratch. He built the foundation for a program that has rose to national prominence and has done the same for UCLA.
“He’s a star, he really is,” Gillespie said. “I was extremely high on him right from the get go. From when we were together at USC to what he did here [at UC Irvine], I knew he had something special. And when he went to UCLA, I certainly was a believer that UCLA was about to become a top, top, top program and remain that way.”
Guerrero and Gillespie credit Savage’s tireless work effort and impeccable recruiting skills for his success. Savage credits his assistant coaches and his wife, Lisa, for understanding the demands of the coaching life. Lisa is the daughter of a coach. Her father is Chris Ault, the Nevada football coach credited with inventing the Pistol offense.
But ultimately it’s about the players, Savage says, and the ability to reload in an era when top players are almost guaranteed to leave after three years. That’s what makes consistent success in baseball difficult and the fact UCLA repeated as Pac-12 champions after losing the No. 1 and No. 3 picks in the MLB draft last year speaks volumes about Savage’s ability to recruit and develop players.
“You have to have players,” Savage said. “You have to have makeup and chemistry and luck with injuries and how the ball bounces in the ninth inning of a close game, but we’ve been very fortunate to have very good players who have bought into our program, our philosophy, our culture and our environment.”
Some of the players on this year’s team are part of UCLA lore. The current junior class has gone 128-55 over the past three seasons -- easily the most wins over a three-year span of any Bruins teams. They helped set a school record with 51 victories in 2010 and are three wins from moving into second place on that list this season.
Perhaps more impressive has been UCLA’s road performance during that time. The Bruins are 56-24 away from home the past three years, including 20-4 this season.
“I think our program is definitely recognized now,” outfielder Jeff Gelalich said. “Being as successful as we have the past three years, it’s just all the hard work paying off and it’s good to see this.”
Gelalich said the UCLA baseball program has come a long way since just a few years ago when he was trying to decide where to go to school.
“It seemed like with baseball, they never really could pull it together,” Gelalich said. “There were always good players here, but the teams were missing something.”
Now with Savage at the helm, the Bruins seem to have everything they want -- except for a national championship that is. With the No. 2 national seeding and home-field advantage up to the College World Series, the Bruins have every opportunity to get in position for that national tile and should they win, well, then, there would be no more argument about whether UCLA is a consistent national power.
“It would be huge,” Savage said. “I think any program that hasn’t won one would say the same thing. Having been a part of one in 1998, I know it changes a lot. It changes the whole landscape of the program. There are no guarantees that you will be good years after because it’s always a new team and a new season, but it just puts you in a different place.”