John Savage is downright bullish when talking about the pitching and defense that have carried UCLA back to the College World Series for the third time in four years.
It's when the conversation turns to offense that Savage dials down the volume a bit.
“You look at our numbers,” he said, “and we're not going to spook anyone.”
To be polite, the best thing you can say about UCLA's offense is that the Bruins are darn good defensively. UCLA ranks 253rd out of 296 Division I teams with a .251 batting average. The Bruins are 205th in scoring, 181st in doubles, 137th in triples, 154th in home runs and 240th in slugging percentage.
Those numbers hardly bring on panic attacks in opposing pitchers, but when mixed with top-10 rankings in pitching and defense, they've been enough to book UCLA into at least a two-game stay at TD Ameritrade Park.
“This is a team that knows its strengths, and that's pitching and defense,” Savage said. “This group has really bought into that style of play. The guys know how to play in tough games, because we've been through a lot of them.
“We like to think we've been able to establish a culture and an environment here where our guys expect to win. They play the game with a lot of trust and a lot of fight. From a coach's standpoint, that's pretty comforting.”
Don't get Savage wrong. He'd love to have a lineup loaded with .300 hitters and a couple of big boppers, but the Bruins are who they are. Sophomore third baseman Kevin Kramer is the team's leading hitter with a .279 average. Junior shortstop Pat Valaika leads the team with five homers and 44 RBIs.
The Bruins have no players ranked in the top 150 nationally in any statistical category that actually requires swinging the bat. Brian Carroll and Kramer are tied for 130th in sacrifice bunts.
“I do think we are a little better offensively than it looks on paper,” Savage said. “I know that sounds funny, but our guys have become tougher outs. They're putting together better at-bats and we're executing much better than we did early in the year.
“That still doesn't make us an offensive juggernaut, but our guys know how to play our style. They know their identity and what they have to do well. And we've gotten used to it. We're in a lot of close games. We haven't beaten anybody bad all season, but we've also not been beat bad.”
That's because few teams pitch and defend better than the Bruins. UCLA ranks ninth nationally with a 2.69 ERA and is 12th in both hits allowed per nine innings (7.35) and walks allowed per nine innings (2.49).
The Bruins back their collection of sterling arms with a defense that is sixth nationally in fielding percentage (.980).
UCLA's game is all about minimizing mistakes — on the mound and in the field.
“It makes it grueling at times, but we've gotten to know what to expect,” Savage said. “One of this group's strengths is its ability to accept things. These guys do a good job of moving on to the next pitch, the next play.
“When you play on the West, you have to be able to take a lot of blows and throw a lot of blows because you know the games are always going to be tight.”
This will be UCLA's third trip to Omaha under Savage. The first came in 2010, when the Bruins made it to the final CWS played at Rosenblatt Stadium. A pitching staff that included Gerrit Cole and Cole Bauer took them all the way to a runner-up finish.
With Cole and Bauer back in 2011, UCLA was considered a heavy favorite to get back to Omaha for the first series at TD Ameritrade.
“When you don't make it with the first and third picks in the draft, that's disappointing,” Savage said. “To make it back last year was gratifying but in some way, I think last year's pitching staff overachieved.
“I don't know if you expect to have a guy like Graham Watson win nine games as a freshman or David Berg go from walk-on to All-American. We had a lot of things go our way.”
Watson, Berg, Adam Plutko, Nick Vander Tuig and Zack Weiss were the key pitchers that returned from the team that went 1-2 in Omaha last season. The Bruins added a couple of talented freshmen in Cody Poteet and James Kaprielian.
The result is that Savage believes this season's staff is comparable to the one that performed so well in 2010.
“We're back to having the depth we want,” Savage said. “We're back to what we were in 2010. We have good, talented arms, and we have pitchability. It's one thing to have a good arm, but we have guys that really know how to pitch and who have gotten better as the season has gone along.”
Plutko, the Bruins' No. 1 starter who was drafted by Cleveland in the 11th round, is 8-3 with a 2.35 ERA. Vander Tuig, who is No. 1-A in the rotation, has a 12-4 record and a 2.37 ERA. The San Francisco Giants selected him in the sixth round.
Watson is 8-3 with a 3.22 ERA.
Weiss, Kaprielian and Berg have combined to make 118 appearances out the bullpen. Berg, a sidewinding sophomore, has put up some sick numbers: a 7-0 record, 0.88 ERA, 21 saves and a .194 opponent batting average.
“We feel pretty good if we can get to the sixth inning with a lead,” Savage said, “and turn the ball over to Kaprielian, Weiss and Berg.”
The formula has worked well in the NCAA tournament. The Bruins have allowed only 10 runs in their five wins. Watson, Weiss and Berg combined to shut out San Diego — on one hit — in the regional championship game.
Vander Tuig, Kaprielian, Weiss and Berg teamed up to blank Cal State Fullerton in Saturday's decisive game of the super regional. It was just the second time this season that the Titans, who finished their year with 51 wins, were shut out.
“There weren't a lot of people that expected us to come out of that on top,” Savage said. “Fullerton's a great team. They had four 10-game winning streaks this season.
“For us to do what we did, we know we really earned our trip to Omaha.”
Contact the writer:
402-679-2298, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/PivOWH