AGOSTINI: UCLA baseball's valley connection still on high

June 29, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textRon Agostini
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: Sports
    Bio: Ron Agostini has served as a sports reporter and columnist for The Bee for more than 35 years. His stories and columns have won state-wide, regional and national awards and he's a board director and past president of the California Golf Writers and Broadcasters Association. He's a graduate of Fresno State.
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UCLA's boys from the valley finally squared away some time Saturday and paused for reflection.

Nick Vander Tuig from Oakdale and Kevin Kramer from Turlock said their goodbyes to the team that defied major odds and won the College World Series title. Vander Tuig pitched, Kramer hit and flashed his glove at third base, and the Bruins wouldn't have taken home the NCAA's biggest plaque without them.

For them, the past month has been a blur, the past week a whirlwind, the past few days a hurricane.

And, now, it's done.

"It's the first year we ended with a win. We were all kind of waiting for another game," Vander Tuig admitted. "It's different. It's exciting and sad at the same time."

While Vander Tuig took life easy Saturday as he pondered his immediate future — the Giants' sixth-round draft pick probably will sign soon — Kramer departed from his dorm and motored home.

"It won't really hit me about what happened until I'm older and have a son of my own," he said. "I was thinking about that on the road. We had a special group of guys."

How special? Try 10-0 in the postseason special, or UCLA's first baseball title special, or a pitching staff that spun a record 0.80 ERA in Omaha special.

That's why the Bruins (49-17) were feted at Jackie Robinson Field upon their return to Westwood. From there, they were honored by the Dodgers, recognized by Jay Leno on The Tonight Show and cracked jokes on ESPN's SportsCenter.

Championship rings await them. So does a visit this fall to the White House. Yes, it's good to be the champions.

Not surprisingly, Vander Tuig and Kramer at UCLA became a group entry — the farm boys from up north. But the farm boys are becoming good at this. Only five years ago, Fresno State, another unlikely champion armed by another Turlock third baseman in Tommy Mendonca, rode an unexpected wave to NCAA glory.

"Who would have thought that two Central Valley boys would be on a national championship team?" Vander Tuig said. "I told Kevin, 'You guys have two championships in Turlock, so don't go rubbing it in my face.' "

Fact is, Vander Tuig and Kramer accepted the valley banner from Mendonca and waved it high. The message once again is clear: Not only can you win with close-to-home talent, you can win BIG.

Vander Tuig's triumph is huge on a few fronts. He underwent Tommy John surgery and missed his senior season at Oakdale High. Since then, he merely built himself into one of the nation's best collegiate pitchers and a future pro.

He was too locked in to consider his traveled road as he blanked Mississippi State for eight innings on clinch night. Nor could he remember that Kramer laid down the sacrifice bunt leading to UCLA's first run in what grew into an 8-0 rout.

But on Saturday, as the dust eventually settled, Vander Tuig exhaled and reviewed his difficult path.

"I look at (the surgery) as a blessing in disguise," he said. "It opened my eyes to things and made me think."

Kramer recalled the team's early-season struggles. He was the Bruins' No. 3 hitter but was switched to No. 2 at midseason by coach John Savage. The transition wasn't easy.

"It wasn't an easy season. We had our hiccups and our team meetings," Kramer said. "We were never favored. But our coach said it's not the best team that wins. It's the team that plays the best."

True enough, UCLA — which placed third in the Pacific 12 Conference — knocked off a gauntlet of powerhouses en route to the title. Down they went, one by one — Cal Poly, San Diego, San Diego State, fourth-ranked Cal State Fullerton and, in the CWS, No. 1 LSU, No. 5, North Carolina State, and No. 2 North Carolina before they swept Mississippi State in the final.

Though UCLA advanced to Omaha for the third time in four years, it wasn't expected to be a contender. The Bruins' light-hitting attack couldn't match up with the heavyweights, it was said.

Instead, UCLA flipped the script in its favor. Without question, the Bruins have figured out the new-aged collegiate game with its de-juiced composite bats. Defense and pitching trump hitting these days. There were 62 home runs struck by the final eight teams in the NCAA tournament 15 years ago.

This year, there were three — none by UCLA.

Kramer and shortstop Pat Valaika formed the best left-side defense in the nation. Vander Tuig (14-4) and fellow starter Adam Plutko (10-3) were the nation's best 1-2 punch on the mound. When it ended, UCLA answered every question in bold capital letters.

What happens next already is under way. Vander Tuig, who would be a senior at UCLA, hopes to pitch in the Giants' farm system soon. Kramer, a junior, could be one of the Bruins' captains next spring.

Regardless, they left a sizable imprint on UCLA baseball and inspired a generation of youngsters back home.

As Vander Tuig said, "We just played the game right. It's baseball, man. It's not always perfect."

Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or (209) 578-2302. Follow Ron via Twitter @modbeesports.

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