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Chips fall in where they may

No team at the College World Series has scored fewer runs than UCLA, but the Bruins' formula works.

June 16, 2013|Chris Foster
  • UCLA's Pat Gallagher, left, celebrates with teammate Pat Valaika after scoring a run against San Diego State in a regional game last month at Jackie Robinson Stadium.
UCLA's Pat Gallagher, left, celebrates with teammate Pat Valaika… (Bret Hartman / Associated…)

UCLA is in Omaha for the College World Series and, yes, the Bruins took bats with them to use.

Maybe the Bruins' batters are not just in it for the ride. But do the math.

Their .251 regular-season team batting average was the lowest among the 64 teams that made the NCAA tournament.

The Bruins' 293 runs are the fewest among the eight teams that reached the College World Series. Their average of 4.8 runs per game is a full run behind the next lowest (Oregon State averages 5.8).

UCLA has 19 home runs, only one more than Indiana catcher Kyle Schwarber brought to Omaha.

Add it up and scratch your head. This is a team with a designated hitter who is "hitting" .232. Yet, the Bruins made it to Omaha and will face Louisiana State in the first round Sunday.

"We don't look at the numbers," UCLA first baseman Pat Gallagher said. "No matter how bad offensively people think we are, if we keep winning games, it doesn't matter."

That philosophy has sustained the Bruins, who are 5-0 in the postseason. They do not have a batter hitting above .300, but parlayed a collection of infield hits, seeing-eye grounders, sacrifice flies, occasional line drives and opponents' mistakes into five consecutive postseason victories.

"We don't have that big home run guy," outfielder Eric Filia said. "We're just trying to get that next batter to the plate. Someone gets on, move him over and trust the next guy behind you to get him in."

This, Bruins Coach John Savage said, "is the state of college baseball."

The college game did change dramatically after the 2010 season. The NCAA adopted new standards designed to make bats less lively. Popups that once became home runs became popups again in 2011. Collegiate teams averaged 5.6 runs per game, the first time it dipped below six since 1977, and home runs were cut nearly in half.

UCLA's team batting average dropped from .304 in 2010 to .263 in 2011. The Bruins hit 65 home runs and scored 469 runs in 2010. They had 17 home runs and scored 261 runs in 2011.

"If you're an average tool player, it's a little more difficult now," Savage said. For average pitchers, he said, "the bat allows you to get away with some things."

The devalued bats and attrition changed how the Bruins played the game. UCLA this season had to replace five "significant players," Savage said. All hit better than .300 in 2012 and were responsible for 19 of UCLA's 23 home runs.

The adjustment this season, Savage said, is "our guys know their role in the offense. They know we want to chip away, get a run an inning. If we get two, it's a plus. That's our identity."

Filia and Gallagher have been poster boys in the postseason.

Filia is 11 for 21 during the tournament, with six runs scored and three runs batted in. His 10th-inning single broke a 3-3 tie against Cal State Fullerton in Game 1 of an NCAA super-regional.

"I had to completely change my approach when I came to UCLA," said Filia, who is hitting .278. "Instead of being a power hitter, I had to get base hits where I could. I needed to be that line-drive hitter."

Gallagher is eight for 17 in five postseason games and has driven in seven of the Bruins' 25 runs. His single against Fullerton gave the Bruins a 2-0 lead in Game 2 of the super-regional.

"We want to find gaps," said Gallagher, who is hitting .277. "We want quality at-bats and walks. We want hard ground balls. We want to make the other team play defense."

Basically, Savage said, "we're opportunistic."

Against Cal Poly in the regional, Kevin Williams' harmless-looking fly ball to right field was lost in the lights and became a three-run triple that tied the score, 4-4. UCLA won, 6-4, the decisive runs scoring on an infield hit by Filia and a walk to Pat Valaika.

Against Fullerton, Gallagher's two-run single cashed in two errors by the Titans, part of a three-run first inning. The Bruins' strong pitching staff made that stand up in a 3-0 victory that clinched the CWS bid.

UCLA has scored five runs on sacrifice flies in five postseason games.

"We don't really knock the door down," Savage said. "It's not an offensive explosion. It's more chopping the tree down. We kind of outlast people."

Which is all the Bruins want to do in the World Series. Said Gallagher: "If we keep winning and have a .250 batting average, team, so be it."

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chris.foster@latimes.com twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

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