OMAHA—Eric Filia has an impressive pedigree. It dates back to his freshman year at Huntington Beach’s Edison High, when he hit .500 to tie Jeff Kent’s school record. By the time he graduated, he ranked seventh in California high school history in hits. He hit .383 last summer in the prestigious Northwoods League to rank as the circuit’s No. 10 prospect. So it was reasonable for UCLA to expect Filia to make a jump to stardom and anchor its lineup as a sophomore this spring.
But as March turned to April, Filia was hitting .228. When the regular season ended, the sophomore right fielder had started to heat up a bit, but was still hitting just .252.
In nine postseason games, Filia leads UCLA with a .424 average, helping his season average jump 24 points, to .276. At last, he has become one of the focal points of UCLA’s lineup, repeatedly showing a knack for coming up with big hits when the Bruins need them most.
Filia led UCLA’s offense again in the first game of the CWS Finals on Monday, leading the Bruins to a 3-1 win against Mississippi State. He doubled in the first inning to help the Bruins get on the board first, then added a two-run single in the fourth to cap UCLA’s scoring.
|Game At A Glance|
|Turning Point: Mississippi State had runners at first and second with no outs in the seventh inning against UCLA freshman righty James Kaprielian. No. 9 hitter Demarcus Henderson tried and failed to get a bunt down twice, then hit a sharp grounder up the middle that UCLA second baseman Cody Regis backhanded. He made a slick glove-flip to shortstop Pat Valaika, who turned the double play to deflate the MSU rally. Adam Frazier then grounded out to strand the runner at third. Savage called the play “a game-changer.”
The Hero: Eric Filia keyed both of UCLA’s rallies, doubling in the first inning to set the stage for Valaika’s RBI single, then hitting a two-run single in the fourth. He also made a fantastic leaping catch before crashing into the right-field wall in the fifth.
You Might Have Missed: The 3-1 score suggests this was a typical game for UCLA, which has allowed just 14 runs during its 9-0 run through the NCAA tournament. But in some ways, the game was atypical. The Bruins did squander some opportunities to take a larger lead early in the game, and they stranded seven baserunners. UCLA coach John Savage emphasized that the game was “tight” and his team was living on the edge. As good as Adam Plutko was, allowing just a run on four hits over six strong innings, Chad Girodo was more dominant out of the Mississippi State bullpen, striking out nine over 7 2/3 innings of stellar relief.
“It doesn’t happen a lot, where you punch out 12 guys and your guys strike out twice—that’s not an equation you lose a lot,” MSU coach John Cohen said. “But that’s how the game works. They made the most of their opportunities.”
“He’s a very talented player who didn’t have a very good year,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “For whatever reason the numbers aren’t there, but he’s a pretty darn good hitter, and we feel confident when he’s up there in that situation. Because he likes the big moment, I have noticed that. In a tight game, you’re playing for your life, he’s the guy you want up there.
“It’s kind of the story of our team a little bit. We have good players, it’s just when you look at the stat sheet, you’re shaking your head a little bit. I think the whole country’s seeing that now.”
Filia has a sweet lefthanded swing, and when he’s locked in, he is capable of hitting hard line drives to all fields. When he doesn’t spray the ball around, Savage said, he struggles, but he used the whole field Monday. In his first at-bat, Filia went the other way with a Trevor Fitts fastball up and away for a double down the left-field line. That put runners on second and third, setting the stage for Pat Valaika’s RBI single to center. UCLA never looked back.
In the fourth, the Bruins got a one-out single from Brenton Allen, then took advantage of catcher Nick Ammirati’s throwing error on Brian Carroll’s bunt. Filia came up with runners at second and third and two outs, and this time he pulled a two-run single to right field, giving UCLA a commanding 3-0 lead. It was the last hit that MSU’s dominant lefthander, Chad Girodo, would allow in the game, but it was the last hit UCLA would need.
“He really threw his plus pitch, which was a slider,” Filia said. “Basically I was just trying to focus on that one pitch, trying to hit it up, not trying to get too big.”
Adopting that kind of approach has been central to Filia’s second-half surge. He hit for some power during his high school days, slugging seven home runs as a junior, but he said he had to learn to change his approach in college.
“I’m not that player anymore, and I know that,” Filia said after going 4-for-5 in a super regional victory against Cal State Fullerton. “I’m hitting 3-hole, but I know I’m not that powerful of a hitter.”
In the Northwoods League, Filia said, pitchers often tried to light up radar guns, so Filia feasted on fastballs. Once again, he had to mature as a hitter this spring.
“In the Pac-12, there’s going to be curveballs and changeups in fastball counts,” Filia said. “I was really just getting myself out (early this season). But this second half, I’ve been learning, making adjustments, just working, watching some video of myself, just trying to work on my swing and approach. I’ve really just had the mindset of not trying to do too much, not trying to hit home runs, just trying to hit my pitch instead of swinging at bad pitches, because that’s what I got in trouble with in the beginning of the season. Right now, I love this, I love the postseason. Big things happen in big games.”
And Filia has been right in the middle of it. He also made a dazzling defensive play Monday, racing back toward the right-field wall to track an Ammirati drive leading off the fourth, leaping to make the grab, and holding on as he crashed into the wall. UCLA starter Adam Plutko, a flyball pitcher who got 11 flyball outs over his six strong innings Monday, pumped his fist and pointed at Filia in appreciation after that play.
UCLA’s defense was a big story of Monday’s win. The Bruins made one error—when Plutko let a comebacker deflect off his glove immediately after Filia’s catch in the fifth—but otherwise made many fine plays behind Plutko and the UCLA bullpen, helping to strand eight Mississippi State baserunners.
Senior Cody Regis made every routine play and a couple of very slick plays at second base. Perhaps the biggest play of the game came in the seventh, when Mississippi State put runners on first and second with no outs for Demarcus Henderson. After two failed attempts to get a bunt down, Henderson hit a sharp grounder up the middle, and Regis made a nice backhand stop, then scooped the ball with his glove to shortstop Valaika, who turned the double play.
Rather bulky at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, Regis doesn’t look like a slick-fielding second baseman. He played shortstop in high school and spent most of his UCLA career as a corner infielder, but he did play second base in Omaha as a freshman in 2010 after Tyler Rahmatulla broke his hand in the post-super regional dogpile. He handled the position well then, but he let a ball go through his legs for a costly error in the Finals against South Carolina.
Regis hit .321 with nine homers as a freshman, and his offensive production has declined in each subsequent season, but he has made up for it by becoming a rock at second base.
“Our defense has been the key to our success in our postseason run,” Savage said. “We haven’t struck a lot of guys out—our strikeouts are really down in the postseason, and we have been a strikeout program. But it’s a credit to our pitchers, it’s a credit to our defense. Regis made some outstanding plays. That double play against Henderson was a game-changer.
“He’s a big body, and he’s a good athlete. He’s had some huge hits—in the super regional against TCU (last year), the Fullerton super regional a couple years back. I mean, he’s had some big moments. You look at the record book, he’s up there in RBIs and walks and at-bats. Nobody’s had more postseason games in the history of our school. So he’s an accomplished player. There again, you look at his numbers this year—our guys have really struggled early, but now they’re really putting it all together.”
At exactly the right time.