In the aftermath of UCLA’s 3-1 win over Mississippi State to open the College World Series finals, TD Ameritrade Park was awake with the typical media frenzy you’d expect from any high-profile championship game.
All the big players were in the house to capture the spectacle in Omaha, which drew over 25,000 fans from across the country, not to mention a primetime television audience on ESPN. For the Bruins, the pressure to perform was palpable, even after the game was won. UCLA made the necessary plays in the field, but now it was time to get the job done on the sidelines.
This high level of media exposure is somewhat foreign to UCLA. Jackie Robinson Stadium’s capacity is around 2,000, and for most regular season games, the stands were scarcely filled. For the NCAA Los Angeles Regional, which UCLA swept in three straight, some of the games were well short of sold out.
Many college baseball programs—like the Bulldogs in the opposite dugout— average attendance well over 5,000 fans per game. Louisiana State was the Bruins’ opening round opponent in Omaha, and the Tigers top the list at over 10,000 spectators on average. And yet, it’s UCLA that’s one win away from a CWS Championship, not the usual blue bloods.
It just goes to show you what head coach John Savage has turned this program into. UCLA exhibited the maturity and composure we’ve come to expect from a Savage-coached team. When the cameras went live, the Bruins knew exactly what to do—whether it was under the lights or in front of the lens.
The Bruins fielded the barrage of post-game questions, some about how to handle the pressure of being so close, and others about the unique style that has gotten them so far. And naturally, the overplayed angle of UCLA’s weak offense and reliance on pitching was raised for the umpteenth time.
But instead of falling back on the same old song, or painfully fishing for a suitable answer (which we see too frequently from amateur players at the prep and collegiate level), the Bruins bucked up and made the play.
In an on-field interview with ESPN.com, catcher Shane Zeile summed up the Bruins’ team identity with a few well-articulated and thoughtful responses—reminding me again what it means to be a UCLA student-athlete.
Despite being a sophomore in his first season as a catcher, Zeile has been a rock for the UCLA pitching staff. His presence behind the plate is invaluable, especially with a bullpen that features its fair share of freshmen. Zeile has started all year, and he’ll be out there again tonight, hoping to clinch UCLA’s 109th NCAA team championship. He may be just one player on a roster of 34, but his words seem to encapsulate the essence of the 2013 Bruins baseball team.
The full interview can be seen here, but I’ve taken the liberty to transcribe the key quotes below.
In response to an inquiry about how to handle being one win away from a national title, Zeile had this to say about how to handle the pressure:
I think we’ve been doing a good job all year, we preach one game at a time. So we forget about this game right now. We go to sleep, get a good night’s rest, and kind of move on. We play like we’re down one. I think that’s been our mentality all year. We’ve just got to go into tomorrow with our hair on fire.
In response to a question about Adam Plutko fighting through a jam, Zeile pointed to trust as a key element of the catcher-pitcher relationship, a sentiment he reiterated many times.
A couple games ago—his first start—he gave up a solo home run [and] came right back and pounded the zone. …I’m never really worried about Adam Plutko on the mound. He’s got the mentality that you need to win a championship. I trusted him, he trusted me, and I think that’s how we’ve gotten so far.
And in reflection about the UCLA offense taking heat for its low production, Zeile again went to trust as a reason the Bruins can win even without the big base knocks.
We get timely hits. We don’t need the home runs; we’re not a home run hitting team. We’re just a get-the-next-guy-to-the-plate kind of program, and trusting the next guy.
If UCLA can put into motion the mentality and approach that Zeile outlines, I have confidence that tonight will be cause for celebration in Westwood. It’s game time! Let’s go Bruins!