UCLA trying to get to Omaha

UCLA’s baseball history can be knuckleball baffling.

Jackie Robinson played for at UCLA, his legacy worth naming a stadium after him. Yet Robinson hit .097 during conference play in 1940, his only season as a Bruin.

It’s a program that has a glowing history dampened by some perplexing stats — such as 15 NCAA playoff appearances yet not one victory in the College World Series.

So, with all the giddiness prompted by a season in which UCLA won its first 22 games and now barrels into the postseason as a regional host — at Jackie Robinson Stadium — there is still work to do for the Bruins.

Coach John Savage came to Westwood in 2005, saying he had inherited a program that had enjoyed “quite a bit of success,” but knowing that “it takes a while to put your stamp on it.” The opportunity has arrived.

UCLA (43-13) plays Kent State (29-23) tonight in a regional opener with 21st-ranked UC Irvine (37-19) and 23rd-ranked Louisiana State (40-20), the defending national champion, meeting in the first game.

The winner of the four-team regional advances to a best-of-three Super Regional next week. The winner of that plays in the eight-team College World Series.

The Bruins, with a staff earned-run average of 3.02 that’s second nationally to Texas (2.59), are seeded sixth overall in the 64-team tournament.

“We’ve been in the postseason four of the last five seasons,” Savage said. “We’re definitely heading in the right direction. We have been knocking on the door to get the next step.”

UCLA was among the top-ranked teams in 1979, and was one victory from the College World Series in Omaha, before grounding into a season-ending double play — the capper in back-to-back losses to eventual champion Cal State Fullerton.

And then there was 1986, when UCLA hosted a regional and didn’t win a game, losing to Hawaii and Loyola Marymount.

When they did make it to Omaha, the Bruins barely spent enough time to buy souvenirs, going 0-2 in both 1969 and 1997.

Savage set the foundation for success at Irvine when the school reinstituted the program in 2003, and he was expected to push UCLA to the next level. He brought in top-rated recruiting classes, creating great expectations that weren’t always met.

The Bruins were the nation’s top ranked team heading into 2008, a season that ended when they were bounced by Fullerton in a regional. They were ranked 12th heading into last season, but failed to make the NCAA tournament.

Twice UCLA has been eliminated in the tournament by Fullerton — and Savage has a 3-18 record against the Titans since coming to UCLA, with the programs possibly on a Super Regional collision course if both get through this weekend. Fullerton is hosting a regional with Minnesota, Stanford and New Mexico.

“The numbers are the numbers in terms of World Series history,” said Irvine Coach Mike Gillespie, who coached USC from 1987 to 2006, a span that included a stretch with Savage as his pitching coach. “I do know this: They have always been hard to beat and they are here to stay. Look how young their team is. This team is built to win next year.”

This year would be preferable for the Bruins.

“We’ve done a tremendous job putting the program back on the map,” first baseman Justin Uribe said. “We’re setting the table for next year, but we still have goals we want to accomplish. Making Omaha is one we still have on the list.”