Underclassmen lead Bruins to regional round upset
LONG BEACH, Calif. -- The Pac-10 has a rich baseball tradition.
Even if you take USC's 12 titles out of the mix, the Pac-10 would still be the dominant baseball conference in terms of the ultimate hardware.
The champions honor roll includes Arizona State (five titles), Arizona (three), California (two), Stanford (two) and defending champion Oregon State.
It feels like there's one school missing from that mix.
Surely the powder blue crew, the school that hit the 100 national championships plateau this spring, the most accomplished athletic program in NCAA history, has a couple of baseball titles to its name.
Not even close.
UCLA has been playing college baseball since 1920 and has nearly 2,100 wins to show for its time on the diamond.
College World Series wins? Try none. Not just championships, but games too.
The Bruins advanced to Omaha in 1969 and 1997 and dropped two games each time, promptly sending them back to Westwood.
OK, how about some super regional success?
UCLA has made just one appearance in the NCAA Tournament's second weekend, which was introduced in 1999. It was a long trip to Baton Rouge, La., in 2000, and the Bruins were dismissed by LSU -- losing 8-2 and 14-8.
But none of that matters to John Savage.
What matters to the third-year skipper is that the Bruins are still playing. UCLA (33-26) swept its way through the Long Beach Regional, punctuated by a 7-4 win over the host Dirtbags on Sunday night at Blair Field.
"It's a big step [for the program]," Savage said. "It's our third year, and it's really a credit to the players and the assistant coaches. That class that we brought in last year, I think it's the best sophomore class in the country."
Savage has a pied piper history of attracting top college baseball talent. First as an assistant at Nevada (1992-96), then as the recruiting coordinator at USC from 1997-2000, where he helped the Trojans to their last national title in 1998. Next he helped relaunch the dormant UC Irvine program, which he lead to its first-ever NCAA Tournament in 2004.
And what's kind of amazing is the class of 2006 signed on at UCLA off the worst season since 1945. The 2005 Bruins, in Savage's first year managing the club, went 15-41 and posted just four Pac-10 wins.
But that didn't deter the likes of catcher Ryan Babineau (.278, 5 HR, 36 RBI), shortstop Brandon Crawford (.338, team-high 81 hits), designated hitter Cody Decker (.314, 14 HR, 57 RBI) and pitcher Tim Murphy (5-4, 96 strikeouts) from becoming Bruins.
In fact, seven of the 10 starters (DH included) in Sunday's regional-clinching game were freshmen and sophomores. And five of the underclassmen found their way on the All-Regional team.
But none of the recent signees has proved to be more important than sophomore third baseman Jermaine Curtis (.333, 4 HR, 33 RBI).
Forced to the sidelines by academic difficulties during the winter quarter, Curtis returned to the UCLA lineup on March 30 for the Pac-10 opener at Stanford. At the time, the Bruins were 11-14.
With Curtis in the lineup, UCLA won 12 of its next 14 games and eventually got to 29-19 after a 4-1 win at Pepperdine on May 8.
"We were kind of going nowhere and really struggling," Savage said. "A lot of the tribute goes to Jermaine Curtis. We got him back and we just took off. It's something I've never seen before.
"It took a while for this team to get some identity and I think when Jermaine came back, we definitely knew who we were and where we were going. We knew that we were a good team and that we'd have a chance to win a regional."
Curtis, who honors UCLA great Jackie Robinson by wearing a No. 42 wristband on his right arm, was soft-spoken after he captured regional MVP honors with his 7-for-14 performance -- which included a leadoff homer that sparked a four-run fifth inning in the deciding game.
And every starting pitcher.
When the NCAA Tournament rolls around, there's no such thing as too much quality starting pitching. Just ask teams that have to fight their way back through the losers' bracket.
UCLA avoided that chore, but even with three straight wins, no one could have predicted how long the starters would go.
Tyson Brummett (10-5, 3.57 ERA, 109 strikeouts, 7 complete games) nearly went the distance Friday night, throwing 129 pitches before Murphy came in to get the final out. Gavin Brooks (6-6, 86 strikeouts) pitched a seven-strikeout complete game (120 pitches) on Saturday. And Murphy shrugged off a two-walk, three-run first inning to record an eight-strikeout complete game (140 pitches) in the finale.
"It's something that I haven't seen in my 15 years of coaching Division I baseball," Savage said. "You can't say enough about their endurance, they stayed strong all year, they pitched with their fastball and went after hitters and challenged them."
The next challenge comes against a program that has 13 CWS appearances and four national titles to its name.
Fullerton and the Bruins played a weekend series back in February and the road team won each game. UCLA won 6-2 at Goodwin before dropping a pair of home games at Jackie Robinson Stadium (7-4 and 7-2).
If UCLA can reverse that and take two of three against tradition-rich Fullerton, it would go a long way toward starting another postseason baseball tradition in the Pac-10.
David Albright is the senior coordinator for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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