The UCLA Bruins are no stranger to Omaha. For most of college baseball history, they lagged far behind their cross-town rivals, but USC has slipped in recent years and UCLA has now become a CWS regular. The Bruins also sent LSU packing in 2010, so let's just say that I'd like a little bit of revenge.
Record: 44-17 (21-9), 3rd in the Pac-12
Odds of Winning CWS: 6.3%
*According to boydsworld.com ISR-Based Probabilities
Those odds actually make UVLA the #4 favorite to win the title, they just have the misfortune of being on the same side of the brackets as heavyweights LSU and UNC. This is a team with UNC's pitching, but almost no hitting whatsoever. Then again, the way Omaha favors small ball teams, perhaps they are perfectly constructed to make a run.
Previous Trips to Omaha: 1969, 1997, 2010, 2012
UCLA has been to Omaha four times and is 4-8 all-time. However, this is their third trip in four years, and the 2010 team made it all the way to the final series before finally losing to South Carolina. This is a late bloomer of a program, which is kind of weird to say since the school's most famous baseball alumni is Jackie Robinson.
Can't imagine why they changed it. I do like UCLA's lower case script logo, which apparently dates back to 1973. They are one of the few schools that found a good logo and stuck with it. I'm a fan of that clean design.
Ralph Bunche (1950 Nobel Peace Prize)
Richard Heck (2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry)
Robert Bruce Merrifield (1984 Nobel Prize in Chemistry)
Vinton Cerf (Internet pioneer, recipient of Presidential Medal of Freedom)
Walter Cunningham (pilot, Apollo 7 astronaut)
Francis Gunther (father of pesticide residue chemistry)
David Ho (AIDS researcher, 1996 Time Person of the Year)
Maulana Karenga (founder of Kwanzaa)
David Patterson (pioneer of RISC and RAID)
George Pimental (inventor of chemical laser)
Fred Whipple (astronomer)
Raymond Pettibon (Black Flag's album cover artist)
Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson)
Alex Cox (Repo Man)
Francis Ford Coppola (Tucker, Captain EO)
James Dean (icon)
George Takei (hero of Internet puns)
Jaleel White (Urkel)
Anthony Kiedes (Red Hot Chili Peppers)
Ray Manzarek (The Doors)
John Williams (every film score you know not made by Danny Elfman)
Arthur Ashe (Wimbledon champion)
Rafer Johnson (greatest decathlete ever?)
Yeah, there's a lot more. This just in, UCLA is a real good school. This is a pitifully small sample of an absolutely loaded alumni list.
Pretentious Music Video:
LA, of course, has a thriving music scene, though it is usually full of bands trying to be the next big thing. However, iconoclasts are also attracted to LA, and Ray Manzarek wasn't just a member of the Doors, he was also the producer of X's first two albums. X is one of the all-time great punk bands and, seriously, why don't you own their first two albums?
Since this is possibly the last BKAO of the season, perhaps I should explain the Pretentious Music Video joke. College baseball is not a mainstream sport, but we all love it, mainly because our introduction to it was a pretty great team. But make no mistake, we are sports hipsters. Honestly, I think college baseball is the perfect level of popular. I can see nearly every LSU game in some form, and I can listen to the ones I can't see. There's plenty of great college baseball resources available to me online, covering not just LSU and other SEC teams, but also the national scene. However, it's not so popular that I have to put up with Skip Bayless screaming about it. There's not a nauseating saturation of coverage that seems to encourage stupidity. People who follow college baseball love the sport, and while there is a little bit of trashing talking and joshing, the level of discourse available on the game is quite high.*
*Not this column, but elsewhere. Here, I make fun of teams for having alumni that would later work at Enron.
There is no better time to be a college baseball fan than right now. The quality of play is high, the games are easily accessible, and there is low idiot quotient among the fans and online commentariat. Let's enjoy this before ESPN figures out a way to squeeze all of the joy out of Omaha.* It's fun to be in on the secret. This game is special. So here's The Unheard Music by X, not just for UCLA, but all college baseball fans. We deserve a better song than something by O.A.R.
*To be fair, ESPN's CWS coverage has been consistently excellent over the years. They've done right by Omaha. I just don't trust them to continue in that vein. I'm hoping this year's Bases Loaded debacle was just growing pains and they will get it right next year.
RHP Adam Plutko 8-3, 2.35 ERA, 111.0 IP, 77/27 K/BB
RHP Nick Vander Tuig 12-4, 2.37 ERA, 114.0 ERA, 81/17 K/BB
LHP Grant Watson 8-3, 3.22 ERA, 86.2 IP, 52/15 K/BB
The starters are impressive, but there is no getting to the bullpen, which is the UCLA's true strength. Late in games, UCLA has a trio of arms in Berg, Weiss, and Kaprielian who can shut a team down in the late innings. Berg, especially, has an impressive 7-0, 0.88 ERA, 21 saves, 71.1 IP, 73/8 K/BB line. If you chase Plutko from the game, that's where your troubles start. UCLA has a huge edge in late innings, as they boast perhaps the best overall bullpen in the nation. They have to like their chances in a close game.
3B Kevin Kramer 279/387/384
OF Eric Filia 278/388/357
SS Pat Valaika 257/354/404
Now that I've raved about the pitching, here comes the but... the hitting sucks. There's no way to dress up this pig. UCLA's leading hitter doesn't even hit 280, and no one on the team has an OBP above 400. Only one player has a SLG above 400, and that's just barely. UCLA hits 251/357/334 as a team, which is pretty awful. They stole 66 bases on 108 attempts, which is not a good ratio at all. They are costing themselves outs on the basepaths, though Brian Carroll is a speed demon (30 for 37). The good news is that Omaha suppresses power, so UCLA is used to playing a style of game suited to a park in which homers and extra base hits are hard to come by. In a 0-0 game, which team do you trust to effectively play for one run, a high-powered offense or the team that has played small ball all year? As runs get scarce, it starts to suit UCLA's offense in the late innings.
UCLA's offense is pretty anemic, but the Bruins are the exact kind of team that terrifies me. This team is built to beat you 2-1, and in a low-scoring affair in the 8th inning, UCLA has all of the advantages. That's their kind of game. LSU needs to jump on the pitchers early and make UCLA play from behind, even if it's just a run or two. UCLA is built for this ballpark, and that's worrisome.
LSU should win. The Tigers have a far superior offense, have fairly equivalent pitching, and in the Game One matchup, probably win the battle of the starters. I'd rather have Nola than anyone in the country. But this game looks like it could be one of those frustrating drags in which the LSU offense gets caught in neutral all game. If it's tied after the 7th, the advantage shifts to UCLA. I'll be honest, this is the opponent that scares me the most in our bracket.