LOS ANGELES — Everything UCLA coach John Savage needs to know about Creighton’s baseball team can be summed up in his two-word assessment of the Bluejays.
Forget the 26-28 record Creighton will take into Friday’s 9 p.m. NCAA tournament game against the Bruins at Jackie Robinson Stadium. Forget that the Bluejays are a team that spent the majority of the season struggling so mightily that the thought of being one of the last 64 squads standing was pure folly.
But, as Savage puts it, Creighton got hot exactly when it needed to. And that makes it dangerous.
“Their record is what it is,” Savage said. “They are a team that is playing well right now, and that’s all that really matters.”
Savage’s team has played well all season. The Bruins have won 42 games and own a share of a championship from college baseball’s third-most competitive league. They are ranked in the top 10 in the national polls and are No. 1 in the NCAA’s RPI.
That makes UCLA a formidable challenge for a Creighton team that spent much of the season trying to keep its head above water. The Bluejays lost 16 of 21 games at one point. Their play down the stretch offered only a glimmer of hope that they could stick around the Missouri Valley Conference tournament for more than a couple of games.
They wound up winning it all by pitching, fielding and hitting — especially hitting — like they hadn’t all season. Creighton hit .215 and averaged 3.0 runs in their 20 conference regular-season games. In four Valley tournament games, the Bluejays averaged 8.5 runs and hit .357.
A baseball fluke? Maybe, but the Bluejays don’t see it that way.
“We showed that no matter how tough the season is going,” center fielder Mike Gerber said, “you can pull out your best baseball when you need to.”
Whether the Bluejays’ best will allow them to be competitive in the four-team regional that also includes San Diego and New Mexico remains to be seen. Defying long odds one week, though, does build a degree of confidence that such a feat can be replicated.
“No one really gave us a chance last week, and I don’t think many people think we have a really legitimate shot at doing anything this week,” Gerber said. “Except for us. If we play like we did last week, play loose with no pressure, I think we’ll see real good results.”
One factor in Creighton’s favor is left-hander Ty Blach pitching against a UCLA lineup heavy on left-handed hitters. Three of the Bruins’ top five hitters bat from the left side, and two other regulars also swing left-handed.
Blach, who figures to hear his name called in the first 10 rounds of next week’s professional draft, is 6-5 with a 2.64 ERA. He started last Saturday’s Valley tournament championship game on short rest and struggled, but had been outstanding in his three previous outings.
He almost shut out heavy-hitting Dallas Baptist, pitched seven innings of shutout baseball against Wichita State and then one-hit Indiana State in the opening game of the Valley tournament.
“If Ty pitches like he did last Tuesday, I don’t know how many teams could beat us,” coach Ed Servais said. “Indiana State has a good hitting team, and the only hit Ty gives up is a ground-ball single up the middle. It wasn’t like it was a line drive.
“Ty gives us a shot against anyone.”
UCLA will counter with right-hander Adam Plutko, who has won his last four starts in a 9-3 season while allowing two runs in 2723 innings. Plutko was a sixth-round draft pick by the Houston Astros out of high school.
UCLA’s best arms might be the ones that follow Plutko if he encounters any difficulty. Savage has made extensive use of relievers Ryan Deeter, David Berg and Scott Griggs.
Griggs has been outstanding. The hard-throwing right-hander has 15 saves to go along with three victories. He’s limiting opposing batters to a .150 average and has 61 strikeouts in 3523 innings.
Servais admits his hitters have not faced many pitchers as good as Griggs this season. First baseman Nick Judkins said the Bluejays would welcome that challenge.
“Slower guys can sometimes be a bit more craftier,” Judkins said. “Power arms will come right at you, and you know you just have to square it up. We’ll be ready for it.”
Judkins leads the Bluejays with a .308 average. Gerber hit .625 in the Valley tournament. Creighton got production from up and down the lineup in the four tournament wins.
The Bluejays arrived in Los Angeles packing plenty of confidence. It starts with Servais, who never gave up on his players.
He’s the coach of a hot team now. He saw how well his team was capable of playing last week. He has no reason to doubt it can’t play as well again this week.
“I’m convinced that we’re not going to lose the game Friday,” he said. “We’re going to force UCLA to beat us.”
Contact the writer: