June 26, 2013

CBI Live: UCLA 8, Mississippi State 0

Game 2 Notes

Photo Gallery by Craig Jackson


CWS Championship Series Game 2

Parents, Family Help Mold Head Coach John Savage


By Sean Ryan

CollegeBaseballInsider.com Co-Founder

sean@collegebaseballinsider.com @collbaseball


OMAHA, Neb. – Twenty-four years ago, a former high school superstar returned to his alma mater to coach the pitchers on the varsity baseball team.


The rookie coach grew up the youngest of three boys in a baseball family. When he was 4 or 5 years old – and the youngest kid on the block – he’d spend all day playing baseball with his brothers and other kids in his Reno, Nev., neighborhood. In the back yard, the brothers played simulated baseball games, breaking down Major League lineups for hours. And hours. And hours.


Although he thrived in the sport he loved – including being a sixth-round pick of the New York Yankees and pitching for Santa Clara before being drafted again and playing a couple years of pro ball – this was his first time coaching.


“He got into it because he loves the game of baseball and has a huge passion for the game of baseball,” said Pete Savage, the middle brother of the Savage boys.


Twenty-four years later, that passion is palpable.


John Savage, the little kid who used to emulate the San Francisco Giants, woke up today a national champion. His UCLA Bruins completed a 10-0 run in the NCAA Tournament by sweeping Mississippi State in the College World Series Championship Series to claim the school’s first national championship in baseball and 109th overall.


“Right now, he’s the oldest, he’s at the top of the mountain,” said Len Savage, the oldest Savage brother, amidst the Bruins’ on-field celebration at TD Ameritrade Park. “There’s very few rewards in this challenging game, and right now UCLA is at the top of the mountain. And they should savor this day, thanks to John and his staff, and all of the great team. To me, it was the real definition of team.”


The Bruins, who appeared long on pitching and defense and short on hitting, ran through a gauntlet that included a road sweep of Cal State Fullerton and Omaha wins over LSU, NC State and North Carolina before the clincher against Mississippi State.


The UCLA way throughout the postseason – and the bulk of the regular season – included incredible starting pitching, a shutdown bullpen, a steady if not spectacular defense and a lineup that proved much more potent than its .247 average. Time after time, the Bruins worked to make something happen, using hit batters, walks, errors and sacrifice bunts to set up scoring opportunities, and time after time, they followed with a grounder through the infield, sacrifice fly or safety squeeze.


“People say Ameritrade is suited for us,” the Bruins skipper said on the field where they posted a 0.80 ERA in five CWS games. “I think there’s some truth to that, but I think you can say that about a lot of teams. You gotta come out and play and you gotta pitch, you gotta play defense, you gotta have at-bats. At the end of the day, I think we earned the right to be called national champs.”




Savage’s stay at Reno High School and as the coach of the Reno Knights’ American Legion team was short, as he returned to Nevada to earn his degree and latched on to Gary Powers’ staff as a graduate assistant.


“And he worked his way up, and became my pitching coach and my No. 1 recruiter,” said Powers, who retired this season after 31 years at Nevada. “That’s where his strength was. He does a great job with pitching and he could really recruit. That was a great value to us.


“We recruited him out of high school. He’s just the kind of person I’ve always wanted in our program. He’s a quality guy, he’s a humble guy, he’s a hard worker.”


Savage’s ascent had begun.


“It became apparent right away that he was going to be a special coach,” said Pete Savage, who in his own right is a special coach, having led Reno High to a state title, eight regional titles and more than 500 wins in 19 years.


After five years with the Wolf Pack, USC coach Mike Gillespie recruited Savage to assist with the Trojans, where he mentored arms like Seth Etherton, Barry Zito and Mark Prior.


Gillespie, now the coach at UC Irvine, said he didn’t know Savage at all when he was coaching at Nevada. But he started to see the young coach more and more at games and events in Southern California. 


“You couldn’t help but notice that they were doing some winning with some Southern California players,” Gillespie said. “Then you come to find out that’s the guy from Nevada, winning, getting SoCal players, and he’s the guy getting them.”


A spot on Gillespie’s staff at USC opened when Frank Sanchez became the coach at Pepperdine.


Together for four years, the Trojans reached the NCAA Tournament each season and advanced to Omaha twice.


“His impact was substantial, I mean, borderline giant,” Gillespie said. “There’s really no negative…in my view he’s spectacular at all things.


The Trojans won the 1998 national title, finishing with a 49-17 record, the same mark as Savage’s Bruins this season.


“I looked at the record yesterday, and I had a good feeling that, we’re going to end up with the same number of wins and the same number of losses,” Savage said.


“I can’t say enough for what Coach Gillespie’s done for me and my family,” said Savage, pausing for nearly 10 seconds and holding back tears. “He’s the reason why I’m here…Mike hired me in 1997 and it changed my entire life.”


Added Pete Savage: “He kind of went from the local Nevada baseball coach to the national stage at USC. That’s when his career started to take off.”


The next stop was UC Irvine, whose baseball program had been dropped in 1992. Irvine’s athletic director at the time was Dan Guerrero, who later would hire Savage at UCLA. Savage left the Trojans after the 2000 season and began building toward the 2002 season, when the Anteaters started anew. Two years later, Savage guided Irvine to the NCAA Tournament.


After that season, Guerrero beckoned again, and Savage has been building the Bruins ever since, reaching the College World Series for the third time in four years.


“The first thing that we all need is good players,” said Cal State Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook, who coached with Savage for three years at UCLA. “That was the first blueprint. He went out and got good players the first year…they consistently get the right players who go to school and fit into the system that they want to play.”




But there’s more to it than just good players.


“He’s just real diligent and detailed at what he does, and he always has been,” Vanderhook said.


His brothers cite an incredible work ethic that mixes with other coaching intangibles.


“I just see basic fundamentals, loyalty, the ability, precision, competitiveness and back to family,” Len Savage said.


Pete Savage, who was at the College World Series but had to return home before the championship, added: “The difference-maker is how he treats people. How he develops his players, how he mentors his assistant coaches. That’s the difference-maker there, how he treats people.”


As for those players, Savage has had a knack for both recruiting the best in guys like Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole and developing guys into the best. Players like pitchers David Berg and Grant Watson, who were walk-ons when they arrived in Westwood, and Nick Vander Tuig, who had Tommy John surgery during his senior year of high school.


Their praise is effusive.


Leadoff man Brian Carroll said: “He’s pretty much a magician. The stuff that he does, the stuff that he has us doing. He got our whole team to buy in. This is what happens, the best team in the country.”


Ace Adam Plutko offered: “It’s his resilience and it’s hard work. No one works harder than him, and I say that as a statement that I know is true. I know no one works harder than him, there’s no possible way.”


And Berg, the former walk-on who has appeared in 101 games in two seasons and this season set a new NCAA record for saves with 24, breaking the mark of Jack Krawczyk, who saved 23 for Gillespie and Savage at USC in 1998: “We believe he’s the best coach in the country. Tonight, I think that really proved it. We’re playing a great offensive team for two straight days with a couple great pitchers, he really had the right plan to shut it down. You always believe in what he’s calling. You can always trust that whatever he calls is the right call, you just have to go make a pitch. He knows how to develop pitchers, he’s great in games and out of games. He’s really developed this program into a national-title contender year in and year out.”




L.J. Savage, like many dads, was a Little League baseball coach. And he was a huge baseball fan.


He spent his days working in the family business, Savage & Son, a 120-year-old plumbing and heating company that now is a fifth-generation company with Len and Pete leading the way – according to Pete, the company holds the longest active contractor’s license in Nevada. L.J., short for Leonard Joseph, spent his nights, weekends and free time instilling a passion for baseball.


Eileen Savage, says Pete Savage, is the most competitive person he’s ever met, adding that his mother doesn’t miss a pitch of UCLA baseball, whether it’s on TV or GameTracker.


“The game of baseball has always been something that has been important for our family,” he said. “It’s always been a solidifying factor in our family.”


Len Savage, who also played at Santa Clara, offered: “Dad was the baseball fan, and both he and Mom taught us the love of the game.”


John Savage’s love for the game took him from his back yard in Reno to getting a phone call during dinner from George Steinbrenner telling him he’d been drafted by the Yankees. It took him back to Reno, back to where it all began and where he married his wife Lisa, the daughter of Nevada football coaching legend Chris Ault. And it took him to Southern California, where like Nevada, he’s made an incredible impact on three different programs.


L.J. Savage passed away in August of 2010, shortly after UCLA lost to South Carolina in the College World Series Championship Series. A year earlier, former Bruin first baseman and huge supporter Jack Gifford passed away.


Neither had the chance to see the Bruins claim college baseball’s brass ring.


“I couldn’t do it without my wife Lisa,” Savage said. “This is for my dad, this is for Jack, and my entire family.”


A family with baseball in its blood.


(head shot courtesy of UCLA Media Relations, other photos by Sean Ryan)