UCLA’s season pulled back from brink

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LOS ANGELES – UCLA defeated Cal State Fullerton 11-7 Saturday at Jackie Robinson Stadium to push their Super Regional to a third game Sunday, but no one could have fathomed that outcome when the Bruins were down to their last out in the ninth inning, trailing by a run.

The ending was all but written. The sold-out crowd was standing and preparing to flood the parking lot. The UCLA Bruins’ radio play-by-play man was thanking fans at home for listening this season. UCLA, designated as the visiting team even though the game was at its stadium, had a runner on first with two out. Sophomore Tyler Rahmatulla, his coach’s advice that “we’re all gonna die someday” still ringing in his ears, stepped to the plate.

“It’s a lot of emotions running through my head,” he said after the game. “I was thinking of everybody. I was looking at our trainers and coaches, and then at all the fans who come out and support you all year. I just tried to stay relaxed and keep all that stuff out. I just tried to stay as relaxed as possible.”

The pressure was on for more reasons than the obvious – that an out would end the Bruins’ season.

The pressure was on because it would be still another galling loss to the Titans. Even with all the talent the Bruins have passed along to professional baseball, including 11 players selected in last week’s MLB draft, Fullerton continually tops them. None of their stars ever seem to save them. In John Savage’s six seasons as coach, UCLA was 3-19 against Fullerton entering Saturday’s game.

The pressure was on because this is when the Bruins always seem to stumble. Fullerton has been to the College World Series six times in the 2000s; the Bruins haven’t made the trip to Omaha since 1997.

Rahmatulla worked his way into a hitter’s count, three balls and one strike. Fullerton coach Dave Serrano had tried to cross-count the previous batter, Blair Dunlap, and walked him. He ordered up a fastball for Rahmatulla.

“It didn’t really feel like we were down to the last out,” Serrano said. “I think there was just a ton of trust in Tyler.”

The bat cracked and the ball sailed deep to left-center field. Home run. The Bruins led 7-6.

On a field full of future pro players, Rahmatulla became the first unlikely hero for his team.

“All those guys could have been in the same spot,” he said, “and I would trust every guy on that team – it doesn’t matter if they’re old or if they’re young. Anyone could have come through in that situation.

“But it does feel good for it to be me.”

The Titans, though, never are easy to eliminate. They haven’t been an easy win all season, even when they started 7-9.

Closer Daniel Klein, the 85th pick in the draft, tried to seal the UCLA win. But Fullerton’s speedy Gary Brown, the 24th pick in the draft, entered as a pinch-runner (a broken finger kept him out of the starting lineup), and sent the game into extra innings by stealing second and third and then scoring when the catcher’s throw was misplayed by the third baseman.

In the 10th inning, the Bruins, who are known for their deep bullpen, exhibited a deep bench. It wasn’t a star stepping to the plate with the bases loaded. Instead, it was freshman pinch-hitter Trevor Brown, who shot a single to left field to drive in two runs. Two more Bruins scored on an outfield error. Game over.

“This defies all imagination and belief,” said John Ramey, the play-by-play man.

“Seems like the game was over a couple of times for both clubs,” Serrano said. “It was a hell of a college baseball game.

“It wasn’t over till it was over.”

You might say the same thing about the series.

The Bruins were all but finished before Rahmatulla hit that two-run homer. Now they have new life. Saturday, they played to stay alive. Sunday, they have the chance to advance to Omaha.

They have a chance to rewrite the ending to this series. And begin to mend their dismal history against Fullerton.

David Gardner is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.
Updated Sunday, Jun 13, 2010