By Peter Wardell
LOS ANGELES – After last weekend’s strong showing, No. 2 national seed UCLA looked to be a strong favorite heading into its super regional showdown with Texas Christian. While the Bruins came away with a 6-2 victory in Friday's opener, knocking off the Horned Frogs was no easy task.
Coming off a run through the losers' bracket to win the College Station Regional last weekend, TCU stormed out of the gate fearless and confident, unfazed by the scorching Bruins. Freshman lefthander Brandon Finnegan attacked hitters early, touching 95 mph in the first. Juniors Josh Elander and Kyle von Tungeln gave the Horned Frogs a 2-1 lead with solo home runs in the first and third, and things started to get very quiet at Jackie Robinson Stadium.
Then in the bottom of the sixth, it all unraveled for the Frogs.
Hanging onto a 2-1 lead, TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle called in junior submariner Justin Scharf from the bullpen after Finnegan walked UCLA catcher Tyler Heineman on four pitches and hit Cody Keefer to start the inning. Scharf loaded the bases with another hit batsman before allowing a game-tying single to UCLA junior second baseman Trevor Brown. Sophomore shortstop Pat Valaika put the Bruins ahead for good with a run-scoring groundout to first base, and after freshman pinch-hitter Brenton Allen was walked intentionally, junior first baseman Cody Regis came to plate.
After looking overmatched in his first two plate appearances, Regis again fell behind in the count but found a fastball outside with two strikes and crushed it into the left field gap for a bases-clearing double, extending the lead to four.
“We knew (Scharf) liked to work away, down in the zone,” Regis said. “Coach told me to look for something out over the plate. I got it and got a pretty good swing on it."
Regis' junior year has been trying, but he has continued to put together competitive at-bats, and UCLA coach John Savage has stuck with him. Entering the season as one of the Bruins’ top power hitters, Regis hit a team-low .253 with just six extra-base hits. His seventh couldn’t have come in a bigger moment.
Early in the game, it was unclear whether the UCLA bats would ever come to life. Working with an effectively wild fastball and sharp breaking ball, Finnegan set the Bruins down in order in the third, fourth and fifth innings while holding UCLA’s lefthanded hitters 1-for-11. With both of his runners coming around to score in the sixth, Finnegan allowed three runs on three hits, striking four and walking two over five-plus innings.
UCLA got an impressive performance of its own from sophomore righthander Adam Plutko. Coming off a complete-game two-hitter in last weekend’s Los Angeles Regional, Plutko struggled with fastball command early but settled in, allowing just one baserunner into scoring position after the third inning. He finished the game allowing two runs on seven hits, striking out seven and walking two.
Freshman righthander David Berg, making his 46th appearance of the season, pitched the final two frames, striking out four and inducing two weak groundouts.
With Friday’s victory, the Bruins are now just one win away from their second trip to the College World Series in three years.
“We’re excited, but we’re ready,” Plutko said. “We’re not done yet.”
Added UCLA head coach John Savage, “It’s one game. We still have a lot of work to do."
Sending TCU home will be no easy feat. After dropping their first game in the College Station Regional, the Horned Frogs staved off elimination by winning four straight, including back-to-back wins against Mississippi in the regional final.
“The level of competition has been raised but we feel like our club is a grinder, blue-collar team that plays well with our backs up against the wall,” Schlossnagle said. “We feel like we’re right where we need to be”.
Game Two is set for Saturday at 6 p.m Pacific. Sophomore righthander Nick Vander Tuig (9-3) will start for the Bruins, while TCU will throw freshman righthander Preston Morrison (9-1).
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