UCLA head coach John Savage, Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
With the bases loaded and no outs for North Carolina in the top of the ninth, head coach John Savage walked calmly out to the mound to reassure closer David Berg and the Bruins that this was their game to win.
Up 4-0 and undefeated to that point in the College World Series, UCLA needed three more outs from its All-American reliever to eliminate the Tar Heels and advance to the championship series. And though UNC avoided the shutout and tainted Berg’s stat line, the Bruins came away with the 4-1 victory and earned a shot at the program’s first ever NCAA title.
Sophomore starter Grant Watson got the win for UCLA, going 6.0 innings while allowing no runs on just four hits. It was the third lights-out pitching performance for the Bruins in the CWS, and it allowed the starting rotation to reset cleanly for the best-of-three championship series that starts on Monday.
Unlike the two previous wins in Omaha, this game was blown wide open by the UCLA offense, which strung together six hits to go with five walks. Junior shortstop Pat Valaika blasted a two-run double to left field in the bottom of the seventh to make it 4-0, setting up the Bruins bullpen for another strong showing.
Freshman James Kaprielian came out first for UCLA, throwing an inning of no-hit, shutout baseball that included two strikeouts. Then lesser-used reliever Zack Weiss got the nod, managing an inning of scoreless pitching himself, before Berg took the mound in the final frame. And even though Berg made it really hard on himself, he still made the tough pitches needed to escape the jam and salvage the W for Watson.
UNC starter Kent Emanuel had a very respectable outing, allowing only one earned run in 6.0 innings, but the Heels’ relief couldn’t get the job done. The Bruins kept finding ways to get runners on base, and the pressure proved too much for the top-seeded team in the country to handle.
It also didn’t help the Heels that their normally potent offense was put to rest by UCLA. Rather than blasting a bunch of big hits like usual, North Carolina produced a lone run on seven base hits. ACC Player of the Year Colin Moran continued to struggle in this one, going 0-for-4 from the plate with a strikeout. UNC did get clutch nights from DH Landon Lassiter and 1B Cody Stubbs—each registering three hits—but the rest of the lineup was ice cold.
And so the story continues for the 2013 UCLA baseball team, a scrappy squad comprised of excellent pitching, great attention to fundamentals and just the right amount of offense. When the Bruins take the field against Mississippi State in the CWS finals on Monday, they’ll be challenged by a deceptively talented Bulldogs team.
Led by wrecking ball Wes Rea, MSU swept through its bracket to earn a spot in the championship series, including two wins over No. 3 Oregon State. The Bulldogs also have a stellar closer in sophomore Jonathan Holder, a right-hander who was one of five finalists for NCBWA Stopper of the Year (an award that Berg wound up winning).
If the UCLA offense can keep up its recent uptick in production, the Bruins should be able to rely on Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig to do what they do. UCLA is two wins away from its first College World Series title, but the war is far from won. Savage and the Bruins need to lock in and bear down to grind out the ultimate path to glory.