UCLA's best year ends in heartbreak
A thrilling 11-inning College World Series final finishes the Bruins' season
OMAHA, Neb. -- UCLA's journey ended here, the blinding flashbulbs popping around Rosenblatt Stadium providing one last shining moment, but for another team.
The Bruins' journey came to an abrupt stop -- no spotlight, no shiny trophy, no confetti -- following a heartbreaking 11-inning 2-1 loss to South Carolina in Game 2 of the College World Series final Tuesday.
There were hugs, catcher Steve Rodriguez and shortstop Niko Gallego embracing each other near home plate. There were handshakes, head coach John Savage congratulating each of his players as their names were announced. There were tears, the team holding an extended meeting in its clubhouse before splitting for the summer.
"In the locker room, obviously, it's hard to hold your emotions in," said UCLA starting pitcher Rob Rasmussen. "To get so close and fall short hurts. But I think maybe later tonight or tomorrow, as it all kind of sinks in and as we look back on it, we're all going to be proud of what we did."
Savage had closer Dan Klein -- his late-inning, high-pressure warrior -- on the mound in the 11th inning, trying to extend UCLA's historic journey. The Bruins had never competed in a title series. Heck, UCLA had never won a World Series game before this year's.
Klein battled into his fourth inning of work and made 73 pitches. The 73rd was the last -- as in ever -- at legendary Rosenblatt Stadium, which will give way to a newer, flashier ballpark near the city's downtown district.
Klein walked Scott Wingo to start the frame, and Rodriguez misread a pitch and let it get past him to help Wingo advance 90 feet. Evan Marzilli then dropped a sacrifice bunt to move Wingo another 90 before Whit Merrifield laced a 2-0 offering for the game-winning single to right field.
All Klein could do was look away, and all right fielder Brett Krill could do was run past a ball that fell 50 feet in front of him. The ball continued to roll to the wall.
UCLA's season was over, its dreams dashed after a program-best 51 wins.
"Klein is a starter who is closing," Savage said in defense of the third-round MLB draft choice. "He's a four-pitch guy, one of the best closers in the country. He could be a No. 1 starter for most programs -- that's how good he is."
UCLA was six outs from forcing a winner-take-all Game 3.
Klein jogged in from the bullpen in the eighth with the Bruins clinging to a 1-0 lead. After a sacrifice bunt moved the game-tying run to second, Bobby Haney ripped a tricky hopper to the right side that would eventually score the equalizer. The 24,390 in attendance will remember the ball glancing off first baseman Dean Espy's glove, sailing over second baseman Cody Regis' bare-handed attempt and somehow finding a crease before Krill picked it up and a pro-USC crowd exploded.
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It didn't have to come down to that. The Bruins wasted too many chances, including a bases-loaded look in the ninth that could have given them the lead again.
"We had a rally going after two outs, and we just could not come up with a big hit," Savage said. "That was the story the last two nights. I think South Carolina's pitching is very good and one of the big reasons why they're national champions."
Early on, the Bruins had opportunities they wished they had had in Monday night's 7-1 loss.
Beau Amaral and Blair Dunlap singled with an out in the first -- UCLA didn't notch its first hit until the fifth on Monday -- but the threat diminished when Gamecocks starter Michael Roth caught Amaral napping off second base. The first two batters reached base to lead off the next inning, but freshman Trevor Brown failed to get the bunt down and bounced into a double play.
In the third, Amaral was stranded after doubling with an out. Rodriguez popped out to the catcher with a runner at third and one out in the seventh.
The lack of offense spoiled a stellar outing by Rasmussen, a second-round selection in this year's draft who probably threw for the last time as a Bruin on Tuesday. The junior left-hander tossed six scoreless innings, allowing six hits, walking four and striking out five.
"We were under .500 last year at 27 [wins] and 29 [losses], and we really are, like Coach [Savage] said, the best team that this school has ever seen," Rasmussen said. "We set the bar for this program, really. That's something that we're all very proud of, and something that we came here to do when we signed our letters of intent."
And so the journey ends without one final shining moment for the Bruins.
Blair Angulo writes the UCLA blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com