With his players gathered around him in left field at Phoenix Municipal Stadium on Sunday afternoon, UCLA baseball coach John Savage delivered a two-fold message in the wake of an unfamiliar result.
The top-ranked Bruins’ 8-7 loss to No. 22 Arizona State on Sunday was a disappointment. The 15th-year UCLA coach made sure his group recognized the weekend trip to the desert — where they took two of three from the Sun Devils — was another overall success, the latest triumphant chapter in their record-setting season.
“It was a hell of a weekend for us,” Savage said. “They’re one of the best home teams in the country clearly. Whenever you lose a tough game like that on Sunday, it feels like you’ve lost the series. But in reality, we won the series and we beat a very good team twice at their ballpark and had an opportunity to win the third game.”
It’s been a while since the Bruins have fielded such a talented squad, which improved to 11-0 in weekend series and clinched the program’s best record through 45 games at 37-8.
In their two wins against Arizona State, the Bruins displayed all the weapons that have made them a serious contender to get back to the College World Series, something the program hasn’t done since winning a national championship in 2013.
UCLA’s defense didn’t commit an error all weekend and made critical plays down the stretch to close out Friday’s 3-2 win. Its offense came to life on Saturday, scoring in eight of the nine innings of an 18-3 blowout. On the mound, the Bruins’ pitching staff — which is leading the country in team ERA despite a rash of injuries — kept Arizona State’s explosive lineup under wraps, limiting the Sun Devils to 12 total hits in the two games.
Sunday’s setback was somewhat of a missed opportunity — and not just because the Bruins entered the eighth with a 7-5 lead, their first loss this year when they held the lead after seven innings. Despite UCLA’s gaudy record, it still can’t pull away in the conference title hunt.
No. 2 Stanford (34-8, 17-4 in Pac-12) and No. 3 Oregon State (31-14, 17-4) have just about matched UCLA’s dominance step for step this season, creating a Pac-12 arms race that has seen all three teams vault up the polls but fail to separate from each other.
“The depth is strong,” Savage said of the conference. “You’ve got four top-20 teams, and then you’ve got a Cal that is a very good club, and Oregon and Arizona and Washington are very capable. You have very capable players in this league all over the place. I’ve been in the league for a long time, and it’s as talented as I’ve seen in a long, long time.”
This weekend presented a chance for the Bruins to make a move. Stanford took only two of three at USC, while Oregon State was surprisingly swept at home by unranked Oklahoma State.
A UCLA win on Sunday would have moved the Bruins — who won series against the Cardinal and Beavers earlier this year — into a tie with Oregon State and Stanford atop the conference standings. Instead, they will need to overcome a one-game deficit over the final three weeks of the regular season to capture their first league crown since 2015.
“It’s good for us, we can learn from this,” Savage said. “We won the series, that is the telling end-of-the-weekend storyline. But at the same time, this is a tough loss when you have an opportunity to win three here.”
Savage found another tangential benefit to all this: By getting tested almost every week — the Bruins have played the nation’s second-toughest schedule, according to D1Baseball — UCLA is preparing itself for the NCAA tournament.
There were moments against Arizona State that felt like a regional, especially during the one-run contests on Friday and Sunday that weren’t decided until the final innings — experiences Savage hopes his team can lean on during the postseason, and as they make a final push to win the conference.
“If we’re not prepared by now,” he said, “I don’t know when we’ll ever be.”