OMAHA—Trea Turner electrified TD Ameritrade Park on Tuesday night—for a couple seconds, at least.
Down by a run against UCLA in the eighth inning, North Carolina State had two men aboard with Turner, the All-America shortstop, facing David Berg, the All-America closer. Turner drove a Berg offering deep into the Omaha night, eliciting gasps from the press box and a roar from the crowd. And then UCLA left fielder Christoph Bono caught it on the warning track, taking the air out of N.C. State’s comeback bid and propelling the Bruins to a 2-1 win.
|Game At A Glance|
|Turning Point: UCLA clung to a 2-1 lead in the eighth inning when Trea Turner crushed a David Berg offering to left field. Off the bat, Turner thought it was a go-ahead three-run home run, and so did most of the 25,543 fans in the ballpark. But left fielder Christoph Bono, who entered the game as a defensive replacement in the seventh, tracked the ball down and made a nice over-the-shoulder catch on the warning track, and Berg struck out Jake Fincher to extinguish N.C. State’s only real threat since the third inning. Berg worked two scoreless innings to pick up his 23rd save of the year, tying the NCAA single-season record held by Austin Peay’s Tyler Rogers (2013) and Southern California’s Jack Krawczyk (1998). Berg has appeared in 14 straight postseason games for UCLA.
The Hero: Nick Vander Tuig tied his season-low by allowing just four hits over seven outstanding innings, and he did not issue a walk. UCLA’s junior righty has been a model of consistency all year, pitching six or more innings in 16 of his 18 starts and lasting at least five innings in every start. He was at his best on the big stage of the College World Series.
You Might Have Missed: N.C. State’s bullpen was characteristically outstanding, keeping the Wolfpack in the game for the duration. Grant Sasser and Josh Easley allowed just two hits over a combined 4 2/3 innings of scoreless relief.
It wasn’t the first time an apparent game-changing home run has fallen into a defender’s glove on the warning track this week, but Turner nonetheless thought it was a home run off his bat.
“Yeah, I was dumb enough to,” Turner said bitterly. “I mean, that’s about as good as I can hit a ball right now. And unfortunately, it fell a few feet short. And that could have been the difference in the game.”
“I knew he got a good swing off on it,” Berg said. “I wasn’t quite sure how well he hit it. I kind of watched it—my heart sunk a little bit. I made a bad pitch, and I knew he’s a great hitter, so a lot of times, with those combinations, not very many good things happen.”
But at cavernous TD Ameritrade Park, where prevailing winds are always blowing in, not very many bad things happen to pitchers—even when they make bad pitches. Unless those bad pitches are out of the strike zone.
And UCLA junior righthander Nick Vander Tuig is seldom out of the strike zone, unless he wants to be. He has issued more than two walks in a game just once in 18 starts, and he did not issue any free passes Tuesday. In seven innings, Vander Tuig allowed just one run on four hits while striking out six.
“He didn’t miss a spot—ever—unless he wanted to,” Turner said. “The only time he missed was up, and he did it on purpose.”
“That shows you how special (Turner) is to be able to recognize that,” Savage said when told of Turner’s comments. “You hear coaches sometimes say that or scouts or whatever, but coming from a player, that makes me think he’s pretty sharp. But he’s right. (Vander Tuig) pitches in the zone. He pitches elevated, out of the zone. He pitches in very well. We pitch with the fastball, and the change and certainly the breaking balls, but our foundation is the fastball, and Nick has as good of command as we’ve had in a long time.”
But for four innings, N.C. State sophomore righty Logan Jernigan matched him—even bested him. The Wolfpack took a 1-0 lead in the third on Turner’s RBI single through the left side, but the Bruins caught a break when left fielder Brenton Allen airmailed a throw to the plate off the backstop and Jake Armstrong tried to score another run on the play, but was easily thrown out at the plate. Vander Tuig settled into a groove after that, retiring 13 of the next 14 batters.
Jernigan, meanwhile, blanked the Bruins on just two hits and a walk over the first four innings. Control has been an issue for Jernigan throughout his career—he had issued 25 walks in just 30 innings heading into Tuesday. But instead of trying to blow hitters away with a mid-90s fastball like he has in the past, Jernigan threw strikes with an 89-91 fastball with good sink, a solid changeup and breaking ball. He carried a 1-0 lead into the fifth, when his control finally faltered. He issued two walks in the frame, sandwiched around a single, and exited the game with the bases loaded and one out. Kevin Kramer followed with a flare to single that scored a run—UCLA’s only RBI base hit over its first two games in Omaha. Then Allen scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch.
“Logan pitched very well,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. “But the walks came back to bite us, as good as he pitched. He walked three guys; they walked nobody. Nobody made an error, and that’s the difference in the baseball game.”
It was a typical UCLA win. In fact, it was UCLA’s second straight 2-1 victory, and its fifth 2-1 game since May 17. The Bruins threw strikes, played defense, and took advantage on the rare occasion when their opponent issued free bases. It isn’t sexy, and it isn’t electrifying—the Bruins are seldom even going to give fans a momentary thrill by hitting a ball to the warning track in this park. They are hitting just .169 as a team through two games. But UCLA does two things at an elite level: commanding the strike zone and playing defense. And its offense is opportunistic enough.
“I mean, what can you say? Right now, I guess that’s who we are,” Savage said. “I mean, it’s Bruin baseball. Sometimes it’s grueling. It’s tough to watch, I’m sure, from outside the dugout.
“But we’re still playing very good baseball. You’ve got to play good baseball. You can talk about pitching and defense all you want, but these guys are executing things . . . We have good players, and we’re just not scoring a bunch of runs, but I don’t know who is. So we’re winning a lot of different ways. And right now, we’re winning our way.”