Omaha trip a program changer for UCLA
Back in April when the College World Series seemed so far away, UCLA’s Blair Dunlap and Tyler Rahmatulla did a great job of explaining what their team was all about.
Dunlap, a senior, was disgusted with the fact his team failed to make an NCAA regional last season. He entered fall workouts on a mission and made it known to his teammates that his career wasn’t going to end on a negative note. And it certainly wouldn’t end without a postseason appearance.
Then there was Rahmatulla, the unassuming sophomore who pointed to hard work and intense mental preparation as reasons why this year’s club was different than some of the past. And he, as with Dunlap, made it known that he didn’t want to feel the pain of not making the postseason again.
It just so happens that Dunlap and Rahmatulla are two of the main reasons why the Bruins will make their first College World Series appearance since 1997. Junior starting pitcher Rob Rasmussen, who pitched in Game Three of the Los Angeles Super Regional against Cal State Fullerton, is the other.
The Bruins dropped the series opener to the Titans and trailed Game Two with two out in the ninth. The Bruins appeared to be on their way to yet another postseason loss to the Titans – they were 3-19 under coach John Savage against Fullerton entering the game – with Dunlap coming to bat. Dunlap drew a walk and Rahmatulla gave the Bruins a 7-6 advantage with a two-run homer.
The Bruins, who hadn’t had much luck against anyone the past few seasons, much less Cal State Fullerton, finally had something go their way. And they went on to win that contest in extra innings, 11-7. The Bruins then had little trouble winning the series finale to punch their ticket to Omaha.
Like Dunlap said a couple of months ago, this is a different UCLA team.
“That definitely was the next step we needed to take against Fullerton,” Savage said. “After that game on Saturday, though, we really just focused on ourselves and the task at hand. No doubt, though, that Saturday win was huge for our program.”
It certainly was. And though the Bruins are tired of hearing about it by now, it must be taken into consideration that UCLA had its season ended by the Titans two of the last five seasons. The Titans beat the Bruins in the ’07 Fullerton Super Regional and also ousted them from the postseason in the ’08 Fullerton Regional.
Disposing of the pesky Titans over the weekend was like getting a big bag of their best candy. Advancing to the CWS, though, is getting a big piece of the pie.
The Bruins definitely could have some bigger moments come to fruition in Omaha the next two weeks. But for now, Rahmatulla’s homer in the second game of the Fullerton series is viewed by many as the turning point for a program routinely chastised for its supposed “country club” and “powder blue” mentality.
The Bruins have the eyes of everyone on the West Coast and nationally on them with a stout Omaha field in front of them.
This will be a fun team to watch in Omaha. Everyone obviously knows about the three-headed monster in the weekend rotation with Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer and Rob Rasmussen. Also, reliever Dan Klein was a high pick in last week’s MLB draft and is a guy everyone will be glued to.
But let’s not forget the job that hitting coach Rick Vanderhook has done. Vanderhook, who is in his second season, has helped the offense make monumental strides. The Bruins hit .279 the year before he arrived. And though they climbed to just .285 last season, they were hitting around .350 at one point this season before declining to .307 by the end of the Super Regional.
The strides this lineup has made and the attitude the players adopted is unlike anything seen from the Bruins recently. It’s scary to think that three of UCLA’s top four hitters include two sophomores and a stellar freshman in Beau Amaral.
Though the future of the UCLA program is bright and finally has the biggest and most annoying monkey off its back, this is a legitimate national title contender heading into Omaha.
The Bruins have an excellent rotation, a solid bullpen and an offense that proved over the weekend it can flourish in the easiest and toughest of times.
“We always talk about discipline and consistency. Those are two key ingredients to every great team,” Savage said. “Our guys just have complete trust in each other and have made a pact not to deviate from the plan at hand. They absolutely have not let anything get in the way of their goals.”
Dunlap and Rahmatulla said the outcome was going to be a different this season.
Not for once have the Bruins deviated from their plan – winning the program’s first national title. UCLA has only advanced to the CWS in 1969 and 1997.
“This team is a legitimate national title contender,” Savage said. “This team is on a journey.”
Which continues Saturday in Omaha. A destination that for so long seemed so far away.