Commentary

UCLA aims high after blistering start

Originally Published: April 20, 2010
By Ted Miller | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- When a baseball team loses 10 games in a row, the general conclusion is that said team stinks. Or isn't trying very hard. Perhaps a little of both.

[+] EnlargeUCLA
Courtesy of UCLA athleticsUCLA coach John Savage has one overriding goal this season: Earn a trip to Omaha.

Last season, after winning its first two games, UCLA lost 10 in a row. Six of those defeats came by one run and two required extra innings for the Bruins to experience the bite of losing.

By season's end, the Bruins had gone 2-14 in one-run games and finished 27-29 overall.

They didn't stink. By most accounts, guys were trying hard. But something was missing.

"Last year, we were kind of waiting around for something bad to happen, I guess," coach John Savage said. "It's just a mindset."

In 2010, the Bruins opted to do something different. They decided to start the season with 22 consecutive wins -- eclipsing the school record by 14 victories -- and rise to No. 1 in the nation. They won their first five one-run games before finally losing 5-4 to Oregon on Friday.

Whatever the problem was in 2009, it's now gone. And something new is present. Whatever it is, the Bruins, now ranked fifth by Baseball America and sixth by ESPN/USA Today, are a much different team.

"The biggest difference between this year and last year is that we really feel like a team," pitcher Rob Rasmussen said. "We're a bunch of guys pulling together in one direction rather than people worried about their statistics."

That might sound like warm-fuzzy analysis, but Rasmussen points specifically to UCLA's image: good players, mediocre program.

While there are plenty of former Bruins in the major leagues -- Garrett Atkins, Eric Byrnes, Troy Glaus, Chase Utley et al -- the program has been to only two College World Series, the last in 1997.

Through the years, something -- other than talent -- seemed to be holding the Bruins back.

To better address the mental side of the game, Savage hooked his team up with sports psychologist Ken Ravizza, author of the book, "Heads-up Baseball: Playing the Game One Pitch at a Time." Ravizza, a professor at Cal State Fullerton, has worked with a number of teams, including the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Angels.

Sometimes players smirk at psychobabble. That doesn't appear to be the case with the Bruins. Rasmussen said that the message to play the game right and let winning take care of itself resonated within the clubhouse.

[+] EnlargeRob Rasmussen
Courtesy of UCLA athleticsUCLA starter Rob Rasmussen has been a positive influence for the Bruins.

"The coaches left one meeting, and all the players talked, and we decided that what we wanted to do was change the face of this program," he said. "We're known for having great talent come through here but we've got two World Series appearances and no national titles. We have talent to change that and make this a powerhouse program, a program that's not only about producing guys but also known for winning."

Key point: Winning often produces impressive numbers. Take Rasmussen, a junior left-hander from Arcadia, Calif. He's now 6-0 with a 2.52 ERA. In his past six starts -- 36 2/3 innings -- he's struck out 46 and walked just 10, and opponents are hitting .180 against him.

And the Bruins' pitching staff as a whole leads the Pac-10 with a 2.97 ERA.

The winning streak ended once conference play began. That isn't surprising, considering the depth of the Pac-10, which has seven different teams ranked in at least one of the major polls.

"In our conference, it's all about winning series. It's not about sweeps," Savage said before the Bruins dropped two of three to now-nationally ranked Oregon.

"I tell the kids all the time, we may be ranked No. 1 but we're third in the league. If that doesn't get your attention, nothing will."

The Bruins, at 5-4, are now actually fifth in the conference.

Of course, at the top of the conference is the Pac-10's big bully and the team with which the Bruins have been alternating the No. 1 ranking: Arizona State.

It's not surprising Savage waves away the notion of looking ahead, noting his team has plenty of work to do before the Sun Devils come to Westwood for a three-game set starting April 30.

But Rasmussen admits the Bruins are well aware of the national standings, not to mention that winning the conference title means stepping over ASU.

"Hopefully it's one and two when we play them so we can knock them off," he said. "That's the kind of attitude we have now. It's not a sense of awe that we're just happy to be on the same field with those guys as it has been in the past."

Of course, there's one overriding goal for every college baseball team: a trip to Omaha for the College World Series.

Earning an invitation would certainly highlight a dramatic turnaround for a program trying to earn its place among the nation's elite.

"It's not something that comes up day-to-day," Rasmussen said. "But we know if we play how we are supposed to we should get there. And will get there."

Ted Miller covers college sports for ESPN.com. His Pac-10 football blog can be found here.

Ted Miller | email

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