By Eric Olson/The Associated Press
OMAHA, Neb. — UCLA has won a nation-leading 106 NCAA championships in 17 sports. Not one of them is in baseball — yet.
The Bruins’ chance is here, against South Carolina, in the best-of-three College World Series finals starting Monday night.
“It’s obviously known as a basketball school with Coach Wooden and everything he did at UCLA and all the national championships and all the NBA players, and then certainly football has a rich tradition as well, and softball and gymnastics and volleyball and golf,” UCLA coach John Savage said Sunday.
“Every day we go in the Hall of Fame room and we go in the weight room and you see all the national championships, and baseball doesn’t have anything underneath it.”
UCLA made it to the CWS 1969 and 1997 and went 0-2 each time.
The Bruins are in the finals a year after finishing 27-29 and not making the 64-team NCAA tournament. They’ve ridden the strong pitching of starters Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer and Rob Rasmussen, and their offense has been timely, cranking out 15 hits in Saturday’s 10-3 win over TCU.
South Carolina reached the CWS finals in 1975, 1977 and 2002, losing each time under the old tournament format that ended with a single national championship game. The best-of-three finals started in 2003, a year too late for coach Ray Tanner and the Gamecocks.
“Back when we were in this position before, we had finished on an early evening on a Friday, and we had a noon game on Saturday. It was set up for television,” Tanner said. “We were excited. We were energetic. It was a short turnaround and it wasn’t the best of three. Is that going to make it easier for us? Absolutely not. But I think it’s the way that it should be done.
“Two teams left. Best of three. You get a variety of pitchers out there in the games, whether it’s a two-game or three-game set. We’re all used to the series mentality.”
UCLA will start Cole (11-3), the New York Yankees’ 2008 first-round pick, in Game 1. Tanner didn’t say his choice to start. He’s deciding among Blake Cooper (12-2), Tyler Webb (3-2) and Jay Brown (3-0). Cooper has started twice in the CWS but would be coming off only three days’ rest.
The Gamecocks have won four elimination games to get to this point. They beat Oklahoma in 12 innings after being down to their last strike, and they got an improbable, complete-game, three-hitter from Michael Roth, a career situational reliever called on to start against Clemson on Friday.
South Carolina wasn’t a top-10 team in the polls until mid to late April. The Gamecocks lost the Southeastern Conference regular-season title on the final weekend against Florida and went two-and-out in the SEC tournament.
They’ve played four one-run games in the NCAA tournament, winning three of them, including Saturday’s 4-3 victory over Clemson.
“We went through a period of time where we really did have trouble scoring runs,” Tanner said. “We weren’t giving up a lot and we were playing good defense. But we took the mentality that, you know, we’ve got to win some games late. We’re going to have to win some close games.”
UCLA hopes to add a national title to the ones the school won in softball and women’s gymnastics this year. The baseball team’s opportunity has been a long time coming.
The Bruins were No. 1 in the preseason polls in 2008 but fell far short of expectations, finishing third in the Pac-10 and getting eliminated from regionals by nemesis Cal State Fullerton. In 2009, the Bruins lost nine in a row early in the season, tied for third in the conference and missed the national tournament.
Savage said last year’s hiring of assistant Rick Vanderhook — “one of the best offensive minds in the country,” he said — has made all the difference. Cole and Bauer also have matured, and second-round Florida Marlins draft pick Rob Rasmussen has been the best No. 3 starter in the country.
This year they opened with a school-record 22-game winning streak, finished behind No. 1 national seed Arizona State in the Pac 10, went 3-0 in regionals and bounced back from a first-game loss in super regionals to knock out Fullerton and advance to Omaha.
Cole, who will start Game 1 on Monday, was dominant in UCLA’s 6-3 win over TCU, striking out 13 and allowing five hits in eight innings.
Bauer, the national leader in strikeouts, has fanned 24 batters in 15 innings in Omaha.
“We tried to create a new identity for our team after last season,” Cole said. “We’ve been working a lot with (noted sports psychologist) Ken Ravizza, who has helped us out quite a bit. We kind of got together and bonded as a team. There are no individual players on this team. Everybody is a part of Bruin baseball.”