You could excuse the city of Omaha for forgetting what UCLA blue and gold looked like. After all, the Bruins had been to the College World Series just twice in the previous 63 years. But it may be time for Omaha to start considering UCLA a regular instead of just a team passing through occasionally.
After sweeping through the Regionals, UCLA hosted TCU in the Super Regionals with a spot in the College World Series on the line. It was a rematch from the 2010 College World Series and the Horned Frogs came into the weekend almost as hot as the Bruins, having won four straight to close out the College Station Regional.
At the beginning of game one, TCU looked as hot as its win streak and 10 runs per game in the Regionals suggested. They hit a solo home run in the first and another in the third as Adam Plutko struggled, all while the Bruin offense was MIA.
Everything changed in a five-run sixth inning, though. The Horned Frogs led 2-1, but they opened the door when they walked one and hit back-to-back batters to start the inning, loading the bases with nobody out. An open door was all the Bruins needed as a single by Trevor Brown tied the game and a RBI groundout by Pat Valaika put the Bruins in front. But the game, and Super Regional changer, came when Cody Regis stepped up to the plate and roped a three-RBI double into the left center gap.
With one swing of the bat, the Super Regionals changed. Regis' double settled down Plutko, who cruised the rest of the way before David Berg finished up the 6-2 win. The impact of that double carried over to game two, too, when UCLA came out firing from the start.
The Bruins chased the Frogs' ace after just 3.1 innings and were in complete control from the very beginning. Nick Vander Tuig threw six innings of one-run ball and Berg came on again, this time for three strong innings. Eventually, Kevin Williams fielded and threw to Brown at first for the final out of the game and the Bruins were 4-1 winners. The 2,135 fans at Jackie Robinson Stadium roared and the Bruins dog-piled on the mound to celebrate their second trip to the College World Series.
In three years, UCLA has gone to the College World Series twice, which matches the number of trips they took to Omaha in the previous 63. Nobody is surprised to see them back at the College World Series this year. Going to Omaha, while always is a great accomplishment, becomes commonplace for a national power and that is what the Bruins are now.
But if the Bruins want to join the upper-echelon of college baseball programs they need to win a national title. While decades of baseball underachievement has been put in the rearview mirror by back-to-back conference titles, hosting Regionals, hosting Super Regionals and another trip to Omaha, a national title still looms as the true validation.
When UCLA gets to Omaha, Stony Brook will be the first team in their way. The Cinderella story from Long Island, New York, Stony Brook has beaten national powers Miami and LSU to get to the College World Series, but most impressively, they did it at Miami and at LSU.
Small school from the cold north or not, the Seawolves have talent. Seven of their players were selected in last week's MLB Draft and they have shown that they are not scared by the big stage. They play a similar style to the Bruins, lacking overwhelming power, but wearing down pitchers with base hits and a strong pitching staff.
UCLA will play Stony Brook on Friday at 2 p.m. PT, in the opening game of the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, but they are just one of the three other teams in their four-team bracket. Arizona and Florida St. are also there and present a major challenge.
Arizona is a familiar foe to the UCLA, and one that the Bruins had success against, taking two of three from the Wildcats in Tucson earlier this year. But this is not the same Arizona team that UCLA played earlier this season. The Wildcats swept through the Regionals and Super Regionals just like the Bruins, doing so while outscoring their opponents 61-20 with their best baseball of the season.
Meanwhile, Florida St. is the number three national seed with an offense that is as good as anyone's in the country. They swept Stanford in last weekend's Super Regional by scoring 35 runs in just two games.
As expected, there are no cakewalks in Omaha. Stony Brook, Arizona and Florida St. are impressive and are going to make it tough for UCLA to get out of the double elimination bracket, but as good as the rest of the teams are, the Bruins might just be the favorites.
UCLA didn't just sweep through the Regionals and Super Regionals, they did it by out-scoring their opponents 33-9 and they have lost just twice since April 29. They were named the tournament's number two national seed two weeks ago and have only gotten better.
Plutko is 6-0 in his last six starts and has been exceptional in his three career postseason starts, giving the Bruins a legitimate ace. Nick Vander Tuig is pitching as well as he ever has, limiting the opposition to just one run on six hits in 14 innings this postseason.
Behind them, the Bruins have maybe the best bullpen of all the teams heading to Omaha. Berg was downright filthy last weekend and with 47 appearances this season, has proven that he is not only capable of coming in day after day, but is immune to freshman jitters. Ryan Deeter remains an ace setup man and, while there are concerns about Scott Griggs and the tightrope that he likes to walk, Chase Brewer and Zack Ortiz give the Bruins two more arms that provide depth in relief. If anything sets apart UCLA at the College World Series it could be the bullpen.
All the while, the biggest strength of the UCLA team has gone unmentioned. Led by Golden Spikes Award semifinalist Jeff Gelalich, Johnny Bench Award semifinalist Tyler Heineman, team RBI leader Trevor Brown and team runs leader Beau Amaral, the Bruin offense has been their backbone all season. And last weekend they showed the most important quality of a good offense when they were able to hang around, battle and score enough runs even when they weren't at their best.
Right now, nobody wants to play UCLA. The starting pitching is coming along and starting pitching is beginning to look as good as their offense and bullpen. UCLA is one of the best teams in the country and a hot one with 16 wins in their last 17 games.
But they still have at least five more games to go.
The Bruins are back in Omaha, a place where they're becoming comfortable. But as a national power they still have one box left to check – national champion.