Nick Vander Tuig (21), Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
After dropping the opener on Friday night, the No. 11 UCLA baseball team battled back to win the next two games and steal the series from California. The Bruins improved to 17-4 with the pair of victories, and are tied for first in the Pac-12 at 5-1 in conference play.
The Golden Bears (14-10, 4-2) got off to a fast start in the first game, roughing up UCLA starter Adam Plutko for five runs and handing the junior his first loss of the season. Plutko, who was tabbed a preseason All-American, hasn’t quite lived up to expectations, and Friday’s outing was the latest of his struggles.
At the end of the day, Plutko was charged with five earned runs on four hits in 6.2 innings on the bump. In his defense, there was very little support from the Bruin offense, which only managed one run on five hits in the 5-1 defeat. But nonetheless, Plutko will definitely need to step it up if UCLA hopes to stay atop the crowded Pac-12 standings.
Thankfully for the Bruins, the rest of their pitching staff has been practically unhittable, and it was on full display on Saturday and Sunday. In the second game of the weekend set, junior right-hander Nick Vander Tuig took the mound and delivered a brilliant performance, allowing just two runs (both unearned) on five hits through 7.0 innings of work.
And unlike the night before, UCLA’s bats showed up to play, tallying eight runs on 10 hits to secure Vander Tuig’s fourth W of the year. Shortstop Pat Valaika led the charge for the Bruins offensively, going 3-for-5 from the plate and tying a career high with four RBIs in the 8-3 win.
In the series rubber match, UCLA kept the hot hitting alive, racking up 10 runs on 16 base knocks against the Bears. Right fielder Eric Filia swung the big stick on Sunday, notching three RBIs and a walk on 2-of-4 hitting to spark the Bruins to a 10-2 victory.
Sophomore southpaw Grant Watson got the start for UCLA, lasting 7.0 innings and giving up two runs (one earned) on six hits to earn the win. Overall, Watson is now 5-0 this season, and has an impeccable 13-1 record since coming to Westwood. It really goes without saying, but the Bruins appear to have an authentic ace in Watson.
But Vander Tuig and Watson aren’t the only UCLA pitchers tasting success these days. In fact, one could argue that the Bruins’ bullpen is the best (and most critical) unit on the team. Closer David Berg has been an impenetrable force so far this season, and he continued his dominance against Cal. Berg appeared in both of the wins this weekend, tossing a combined 2.1 innings of shutout baseball, and extending his streak of scoreless innings to 17. If Berg can keep up his insane save statistics, he will be an invaluable weapon down the stretch of the season.
It’s been said before, but this UCLA squad has serious potential for a return trip to the College World Series. If the Bruins can secure some offensive consistency, and if Plutko can get back on track, the pieces are all there for another special season under ninth-year head coach John Savage. But before we can think big picture, the Bruins have an important road trip to worry about this week.
UCLA will travel to Tempe, Ariz. to take on No. 20 Arizona State in a crucial conference showdown. The Sun Devils (13-7-1, 2-4) have been slumping of late, losing five of their last seven games, including 2-of-3 at home versus Washington State. If the Bruins can invade Packard Stadium and come away with their sixth straight Pac-12 series win, it would be a sign of great things to come for the boys in blue.