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CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

There is plenty to take in at UCLA

April 08, 2010|CHRIS ERSKINE

Big Division I baseball program, right? Well, in about the fourth inning of UCLA's game Tuesday night, someone opens the hood to the snack bar grill, and burger smoke drifts down over Jackie Robinson Stadium like velum. It's enough to make a vegetarian join the steer-of-the-month club. Indeed, the smoke is so primal and evocative, a couple of the infielders look like they are about to cry.

So summarizes the casual/cozy vibe of college baseball, even around an elite program such as this. Dollar for dollar, college baseball might well be the best value in all of sports.

Admission Tuesday night was a couple of bucks. At Dodger Stadium, you can't get frisked for that.

In return, you get first-rate baseball played amid a eucalyptus grove, sea breezes sneaking up your shirt. At Saturday's game against Stanford, you'd have thought you were at a garden party in a Richard Curtis movie. So beautiful were the people -- this is baseball, mind you -- that I began to blink a lot and get a little woozy.

I'm certainly not the first to realize it, but the Westside might indeed be L.A.'s best side. All the men seem so well-moneyed and the women look to have some variation of tiger blood.

No, I haven't been drinking again. Besides, moderation is overrated.

A visitor can only imagine what Saturday nights must be like in this part

of town. It must be very Roman. I'll bet they put

the kids to bed early, put

on their animal pelts and then . . .

Anyway, I've now been to the Westside a couple of times to check out the Bruins' baseball team here in Westwood, where they are halfway through a sensational 56-game season, the hottest team in town.

At 23-2, the Bruins are almost as perfect as the community they represent.

In fact, for a while it looked as if the Bruins might run the table in a sport where you're doing well if you win slightly more than you lose. They were 22-0 out of the gate before dropping a game to Stanford last Friday night.

They lost again Tuesday but still are ranked No. 2 or No. 3 in the nation in most polls and look to be a solid bet for postseason magic.

The apparent Pygmalion behind this turnaround is John Savage, who never exhibited any signs of major greatness before this year, yet now looks to be a contender for college coach of the year.

There is simply no explanation for the turnaround in his team. The Bruins weren't exactly dreadful last year. But at 27-29, neither were they very good.

"We're a year older," says Savage, now in his sixth season. "We've got some good young position players and the pitching's been great. . . . We're hitting the ball better than some people expected."

From what I've been able to glean, pitching is very important in baseball. Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Rob Rasmussen and Garrett Claypool give the Bruins four quality starters. Cole was a first-round selection by the New York Yankees in 2008, but obviously that franchise has no future, nor much of a past. Like any sane person, Cole chose to come to Westwood.

Tuesday, against the always feisty Titans of Cal State Fullerton, the Bruins looked dreadful in the first inning behind Claypool (3-1).

Almost all the Fullertonians came to bat in that first inning. Carlos Lopez, who came into the game hitting .396, third best on the Titans, clobbered a ball so deep to right field that Delta considered selling seats on it. NORAD scrambled several jets, just in case.

Before the inning was over, the Fullertonians had several home runs, a couple of doubles and five runs, more than enough to win.

On Saturday, the Bruins fared far better in a conference win against Stanford, a little finishing school somewhere north of here.

Stanford scored in the first inning, then UCLA answered in the bottom of the inning with a two-out rally. After watching baseball for half a century, I can assure you that two-out rallies are the bane of young pitchers. They often are merry-go-rounds of scoring. The coach, meanwhile, doesn't quite know what to do. "Heck, we only need one more out," he keeps muttering. Seen it a million times.

Yet, it's so relaxed here during such rallies, so country-club quiet, that the biggest noise is the two benches jawing back and forth, the plaintive mooing of cattle.

In the bottom of the second inning, a hummingbird begins to flit across the netting behind home plate. At any moment, I expect Julie Andrews to come out singing the overture from "Camelot."

With the rugged Pac-10 schedule kicking in, even the mighty Bruins will have their hands full the rest of the year. But they are certainly worth a visit this season, if you can spare the time.

Or, especially if you can't.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

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