Bruins and Gamecocks face off for title
OMAHA, Neb. -- Just about every day back home in Westwood, Calif., UCLA baseball players are reminded of the school's athletic glory. A glory they haven't experienced themselves.
"It's definitely been kind of hanging over our heads," pitcher Trevor Bauer said. "We see those 106 national titles on campus, and we haven't contributed a single one. That's been a driving force for us to get on the board."
The Bruins have their best shot to break through in baseball this week. They'll take on South Carolina in a best-of-three title series at the College World Series beginning Monday night.
Although UCLA had never won a World Series game in two previous appearances, it has performed like the heavyweight here. The team rolled to its three victories behind a strategy that could best be described as "Bauer and Cole and pray for snow."
Ace pitchers Bauer and Gerrit Cole have been nearly unhittable, combining to strike out 37 batters in 23 innings in Omaha. Cole will start Monday's game on a full week's rest, and Bauer could come back Wednesday if needed despite throwing 135 pitches in Saturday's win over TCU. Fellow starters Rob Rasmussen and Garett Claypool actually posted lower ERAs than Bauer and Cole this year.
Cole presents the most formidable challenge for South Carolina. He throws in the upper 90s, and batters hit only .194 against him this season.
"I heard some of his pitches this week," Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said. "They were going through the zone so fast I didn't see a lot of them."
Cole was drafted in the first round (28th overall) by the New York Yankees in the 2008 draft. For most players, that would be a dream come true. Cole declined to entertain serious negotiations with the Yankees.
"My family and I had a goal, and that was to play college baseball," he said. "And I've always dreamed about coming here to Omaha and playing in the College World Series."
UCLA seemed like a long shot to make it this far despite all its power arms. The Bruins went just 27-29 last season and were nine games under .500 in coach John Savage's tenure before this year.
But Savage -- a former USC pitching coach who won a national title with the Trojans in 1998 -- said that Bauer and Cole matured last year as freshmen while pitching often on the road. He added more left-handers to the lineup, and the players started to understand the philosophy of second-year hitting coach Rick Vanderhook, who made 10 trips to Omaha as an assistant at Cal State Fullerton. The players also spent a lot of time working with sports psychologist Ken Ravizza, whom Fullerton credited as a key figure in its 2004 championship run.
"We have turned around the mentality on this team," shortstop Niko Gallego said.
Even a potentially catastrophic injury in the super regionals hasn't slowed the Bruins down. Second baseman and No. 3 hitter Tyler Rahmatulla broke his wrist in the dogpile after UCLA beat Fullerton to punch its Omaha ticket. No problem. Backup first baseman Dean Espy moved to third, and Cody Regis slid over to second. The duo has combined for nine RBIs as UCLA is averaging more runs and hitting at a higher average than any other team at the World Series.
"We've rotated guys throughout the whole year," Espy said. "We could use our whole bench and have just as good a team as our starters, I feel like."
To take home their first baseball trophy, the Bruins will have to get past the most resilient team in the tournament.
South Carolina dropped a series with Florida at the end of the year with the SEC title on the line, then got swept out of the conference tournament. The Gamecocks fell to the losers' bracket after just one game in Omaha. They were one strike from elimination Wednesday against Oklahoma.
But they keep playing on, fueled by athletic hitters who grind out every at-bat and pitchers who attack the inside part of the strike zone.
"We feel like there's nothing we can't accomplish right now," Gamecocks first baseman Christian Walker said.
Tanner sees a lot of similarities between the two teams, including strong pitching and defense and solid table setters at the top of both lineups. Still, UCLA must be considered the favorite, given the way it has played so far and how well its pitching is set up for the final series.
It seems fitting that a team from California is playing for the championship in the last year of Rosenblatt Stadium. It's just surprising that UCLA is that team. The Bruins have long been eclipsed by Southern Cal, Fullerton, Long Beach State, Pepperdine and Stanford.
Perhaps, though, this is the year they make the school's 107th national title the first one in baseball.
"That's definitely been a shadow over us," Bauer said. "It would feel good to get over the hump."
Brian Bennett covers college sports for ESPN.com.