June 27, 2013 11:12:19 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
OMAHA, Neb. -- It's not unusual during a game to see UCLA baseball coach John Savage taking and writing notes on a lineup card or anything he can find.
It's a ritual he learned as the pitching coach at the University of Southern California under coach Mike Gillespie from 1996-2000. The notes, which can be as simple as if the players feel nervous at the start to a reminder to check the video tape to watch the mechanics of a pitcher's delivery, have been helpful in his coaching career.
"I just got in the habit of writing it down, even if later I'll look at it and think it wasn't that critical or important to the small picture of the game or big picture of the season," Savage said Tuesday night after his team defeated Mississippi State University 8-0 in game two of the College World Series Finals at TD Ameritrade Park. Savage held the College World Series trophy in his hands as he spoke. It was a special moment for a veteran coach who guided UCLA (49-17) to the program's first national title and his first as a head coach.
"Those little things matter absolutely," UCLA outfielder Eric Filia said. "Preparation really just played a huge role in this and when it became a reality was today."
Savage earned Collegiate Baseball's Assistant Coach of the Year honors in 1998 for his role in USC's 1998 College World Series championship. While at USC, Savage earned his reputation by helping produce numerous successful athletes, including consecutive Pacific-10 Conference Pitchers of the Year Seth Etherton, Rik Currier, eventual American League Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito, and former Chicago Cubs right-hander Mark Prior.
"I can't say enough about what coach Gillespie has done for me and my family," Savage said as he held back tears Tuesday evening. "He's the reason I'm here. He hired me. I was working for coach Powers at the University of Nevada and we had good teams, and Mike hired me in 1997 and it changed my entire life."
Mental notes are what MSU coach John Cohen and his staff will take after the Bulldogs won their most games in a trip to Omaha and earned their first trip to the College World Series Finals.
"We'll go back at look at what we did right to get here and why we played so poorly in the championship series," Cohen said. "We have to use this as an educational experience. Otherwise, it didn't mean anything."
MSU (51-20) finished with the second-most victories by a team in school history. Unfortunately, it made four errors and didn't make adjustments at the plate in its two losses to UCLA.
"They did a good job changing speeds and getting them up and down in the zone and we weren't disciplined," MSU junior shortstop Adam Frazier said. "Hats off to them for getting the job done and winning two games for a national championship."
In the fall, the MSU coaches assigned each player to do a five-minute PowerPoint presentation on anything he wished about the baseball program's past, present or future. Frazier chose to do his on TD Ameritrade Park, even though he hadn't been to the stadium. His goal was to prepare the Bulldogs for what they were going to accomplish this season.
"He had slides, pictures of this stadium and he said, 'When we get there, I don't want it to be new to us,' " Cohen said Tuesday night. "Adam said, 'We will have already seen the dugouts. We will have already seen the locker rooms. We will have already seen the playing surface, the stands.' How can you not be moved by that? Everything he did in that PowerPoint and all the things our kids did in the PowerPoint presentations really came to fruition. It's pretty remarkable when you get 35 18- to 22-year-olds and everything they talk about within an eyelash is coming true. This group is special, and they have helped the future of our program."
UCLA, which was swept in the 2010 College World Series Finals by the University of South Carolina, played with what Savage called an "act-as-if" attitude.
"I wanted our guys to act as if, meaning act as if you're the best player in college baseball at your position," Savage said, "act as if you've already played the best and seen the best competition in this game, act as if this place had no fans in it whatsoever."
The Bruins' attitude and confidence helped let them overcome a .183 batting average entering the best-of-three title series and transformed them into a championship club that scored 11 runs in two games and forced MSU into uncharacteristic mistakes to earn those runs.
"Coach always said the season ends July 1 when the tournament is over, and I think we are here tonight because we believed throughout the process of thing," UCLA second baseman Cody Regis said.
Cohen said his team will need to learn how to do a better job handling the distractions that come with advancing to the national title series, including the thousands of MSU fans that traveled to Omaha. The Associated Press estimated the size of the MSU contingent at 8,000, roughly one-third the size of TD Ameritrade Park. Cohen said the number of MSU fans at a neutral site in Nebraska was shocking.
"I almost feel like our kids put a lot of pressure on themselves because they looked out and said, 'Wow, look how many people are out there to see us,' " Cohen said. "That's not a excuse. It's a fact that it's a wow factor for our kids that in this economy people are giving up their vacations, their paychecks to come here and watch us play baseball."
UCLA, which advanced to the College World Series in 2010 and 2012, didn't have as big a following as MSU, but it was more familiar with its surroundings. MSU's last trip to the College World Series was 2007.
"We've really embraced that environment (because) since we've ever been to Omaha seems like everybody has bigger crowds," Savage said. "You go back to LSU and North Carolina a couple of days ago, and tonight was big time. There was all kinds of Mississippi State people, and I applaud them for showing up and supporting their team. They're classy fans, but we've embraced kind of that stadium against us philosophy and our guys enjoy that."
Cohen and his staff vowed Tuesday night to use the losses as learning tools just like they've used other instances from practices or in mid-week games that few remember.
"I really appreciate the comments about how (this team has) gone further than any other, but what they have done is laid some foundation for some future teams because we're going to come back here and we're going to win this thing," Cohen said. "That's why I came to Mississippi State, and we're going to keep knocking that door down."