Commentary

Mountain Do

The undefeated Bruins seem to be climbing, hurdling and jumping every obstacle

Updated: March 31, 2010, 4:32 PM ET
By Blair Angulo | Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com

The speakers inside the UCLA baseball team's clubhouse have been resonating a lot lately.

After every win -- and there's been nothing but wins so far this season -- Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's duet "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" is first through the speakers, slightly rattling the clubhouse windows.

Savage The guys believe in themselves and they're having fun. There's good chemistry.

-- UCLA head coach John Savage

Players stream out in clumps, each group smiling like the one before it. Inside, coach John Savage sits at his desk trying hard to keep a serious face, but even he can't help but grin.

"The guys believe in themselves and they're having fun," he says. "There's good chemistry."

Savage has gathered quite a bit of talent, too.

UCLA is off to a 21-0 start -- the best in program history -- thanks to a combination of lights-out pitching and scrappy hitting. The Bruins are among the nation's leaders in numerous statistical categories, including team ERA (2.19), strikeouts per nine innings (12.62) and team batting average (.356). They have outscored their opponents 183-54. Pac-10 Conference rival and perennial power Arizona State (23-0) is the only other undefeated team in the nation.

Savage's toughest task this spring may be filling out his lineup card every day.

"He's in a tough position every game because everybody is so good," sophomore pitcher Trevor Bauer said. "We all deserve time, there's just not enough innings in a week for everyone."

The players point to a team meeting held shortly after everyone arrived on campus. Some thought the team lacked unity last season. Some members of the team would drop by Jackie Robinson Stadium for practice and do things on their own.

So early in the fall, the Bruins sat down to establish a different identity, a different mentality, a different brand of baseball.

"We want to do something special here, and I think we have the talent to do it," junior pitcher Rob Rasmussen said. "That's been the mentality -- just to take advantage of this time right now. The coaches and the players have been on the same page."

Said Bauer: "Everyone loves being around each other, loves being here at the field. Practice is a lot of fun and the chemistry carries over."

There ain't no mountain high enough,
Ain't no valley low enough,
Ain't no river wide enough,
To keep me from getting to you, baby.

Clearly, UCLA's "baby" is Rosenblatt Stadium, the site of the College World Series. In recent years, the road to Omaha, Neb., has been too steep. Savage & Co. stumbled out of the gate last spring, losing 10 of their first 12 games and eventually missing the postseason for the first time since his first season at the helm in 2005. Seven of the first 10 losses were by a single run and UCLA needed 43 games to get to 21 victories.

"It was a situation we had a tough time digging ourselves out of," Savage said. "Eventually we did and played very well in conference, but we just couldn't get over the .500 hump."

The Bruins were favored in 2008 and were a win away from reaching the Super Regional. Instead, they lost two straight to host Cal State Fullerton -- the same team that eliminated the Bruins the year before.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesMarvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (with Hugh Downs) in 1967 before they performed the duet "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."

It's far too early for Bruins fans to start booking a trip to Omaha, but Savage is encouraged by what he sees.

"I don't see us pressing," he said. "I don't see us trying to hit three-run homers with no runners on base."

And with UCLA pitching the way it has, why would they?

Ace Gerrit Cole, the sophomore right-hander who was drafted in the first round by the New York Yankees nearly two years ago, has been as advertised. He is 6-0 with an ERA of 2.63 and has struck out 56 batters in 37 2/3 innings. If not for Cole, Bauer (2.33 ERA/56 K) and Rasmussen (2.64 ERA/47 K) would be vying for the Friday spot.

"We have good camaraderie," Cole said of the team's pitching staff. "We've really worked together as a unit. We have each other's backs."

Savage has also managed to find a balance between youth and experience. Sophomores Tyler Rahmatulla (.443 average) and Dean Espy (.411) have combined to drive in 45 runs. Freshmen Cody Keefer, Cody Regis and Beau Amaral are hitting a combined .355 (60-for-169).

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"Coaches have an image of what they want their team to be like, and I think we're filling that image right now," Espy said.

The Bruins have impressive wins against No. 21 Oklahoma and No. 24 Vanderbilt on their résumé, plus a three-game sweep of Nebraska. But despite the promising 21-0 start, Savage knows baseball is a humbling sport.

"You can get knocked down pretty fast in this thing," he said. "There's going to be hiccups along the way. When we get there, we have to make sure we know how to handle them."

In the time being, UCLA should keep the Gaye and Terrell classic queued up in the clubhouse.

There ain't no mountain high enough...

Blair Angulo is the author of UCLA Blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com

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