John Savage turned the page on last season’s road woes quickly and literally.
Before UCLA’s first road series of the year against Georgia Tech in February, he assembled his team in its Atlanta hotel and asked his players to list attributes of the 2018 team that went 13-13 on the road. The coach wrote the ideas down on a piece of paper.
Then he asked for what the Bruins wanted to be in 2019. He turned the sheet over and wrote them down: play with edge, be mentally tough, be confident, be focused.
Savage kept the piece of paper all season.
“We wanted to create a different identity,” Savage said of the exercise.
The top-ranked Bruins (47-8) put together possibly the best regular season in school history. They set program records for conference (23) and regular-season wins (47) and won their first Pac-12 championship since 2015. They went undefeated in regular-season series for the first time in school history and didn’t lose a single midweek game. They were the fastest UCLA team to reach 40 wins.
UCLA has owned the No. 1 ranking in the country for more than two months straight and is guaranteed the program’s best winning percentage for a single season since 1924, when the Bruins played just 18 games and went 16-2. The Bruins were announced as one of 16 regional hosts for the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday and will hear the entire 64-team field on Monday at 9 a.m. PT on ESPNU.
“The first portion of this season,” Savage said, “I don’t think you could do it a whole lot better than they have.”
Savage praised his team for its consistency through the long regular season. Instead of repeating last year’s late-season slip-ups — a 1-5 record on the road against Arizona and Washington in May cost UCLA a chance to host the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year — the Bruins enter the postseason with a 10-game winning streak and a 12-1 record in May. They went 19-4 on the road with key series wins at Stanford and Arizona State.
UCLA has 18 come-from-behind victories. The trend started in the season opener when the Bruins came back from a 2-0 deficit against St. John’s to win 3-2. The Bruins added walk-off wins against Sacramento State, then-No. 8 East Carolina and Cal.
With each close win, UCLA’s belief grew. A feeling of invincibility started to surround the team. It felt different from seasons past.
“To be honest, there were a lot of games where maybe if it was the team from last year, we might have not been able to win those games,” junior second baseman Chase Strumpf said. “I think that’s a testament to our team this year, having that confidence.”
Strumpf is one of several key juniors leading the surging Bruins. The J Serra alumnus is one of just four players to have started all 55 games for the Bruins. Two others, first baseman Michael Toglia and third baseman Ryan Kreidler, are also juniors.
The trio has 488 career starts. Combined, they’ve started in 95.1 percent of UCLA’s games over the past three years. This season’s success is no accident.
“It’s a maturity, it’s a discipline, it’s something that’s been forming for a long time,” Savage said. “Anything good takes time.”
Knowing the talent, depth and experience on UCLA’s roster, Savage was confident this team could be special this year. The regular season has done nothing to diminish the belief that the Bruins are on track to reach their first College World Series since 2013. However, a strong regular season is only half of the team’s goal.
“Now the stakes are higher and certainly the expectations are higher,” Savage said. “For what type of season we had, it’s clear that we still have a lot of work to be done.”