OMAHA—UCLA might set a College World Series record for drawing the most backhanded compliments.
Fans, reporters and television commentators look at UCLA’s .248 team batting average on the season, and its .182 average in three CWS games, and they can’t help but wonder, how do the Bruins keep winning?
On Friday, even sophomore lefthander Grant Watson earned something of a backhanded compliment—from his own coach.
“He pitches in with his fastball,” UCLA coach John Savage said of Watson. “He can throw his change in any count. He has two breaking balls. He shuts down the running game—you can’t run against him. He’s good off the mound. You can hit him. I mean, he’s hittable. But he doesn’t give you too much. He can get righthanded hitters out, he can get lefthanded hitters out. So he’s pretty complete, for being somewhat ordinary.”
Pretty complete—for being somewhat ordinary. He might as well have been talking about his team as a whole.
|Game At A Glance|
|Turning Point: UCLA already led 1-0 when it tacked on an unearned run in the sixth. It was typical opportunism by the Bruins; Eric Filia reached on a tough-hop error by Cody Stubbs, reached second on a sacrifice bunt, got to third on a single by Pat Gallagher and scored on Kevin Williams’ RBI singe up the middle. A 2-0 lead was commanding behind UCLA’s dominant bullpen, but the Bruins broke it open with two more in the seventh on Filia’s two-run double.
The Hero: Rather than go back to ace Adam Plutko on four days of rest, UCLA coach John Savage opted to start sophomore lefty Grant Watson for the first time since regionals. Watson rewarded his coach by turning in six innings of four-hit, shutout ball. He has worked 13 scoreless innings in the postseason, allowing just five hits.
You Might Have Missed: UCLA junior first baseman Pat Gallagher, who went just 4-for-25 over his first two collegiate seasons, now leads the Bruins with a .283 average. He went 2-for-4 and scored UCLA’s first run Friday. He is hitting a team-best .429 in the NCAA tournament with seven RBIs.
But UCLA’s pitching and defense are far from ordinary. The Bruins are an elite run prevention outfit, and they proved it again Friday night against perhaps college baseball’s best offensive team. For the third straight game, UCLA allowed just one run, beating No. 1 national seed North Carolina 4-1. The Bruins have a 1.00 staff ERA in three CWS wins, helping them earn a trip to the best-of-three CWS Finals against Mississippi State starting Monday night.
UCLA improved to 8-0 in the NCAA tournament, and it has allowed just 13 runs total in those eight games. That’s 1.6 runs per game—against very good offenses like UNC, Louisiana State, North Carolina State, Cal State Fullerton, Cal Poly and San Diego.
Watson’s last outing came in the regional clincher against USD, when he allowed just one hit over seven scoreless innings. That was 19 days ago, and he stayed in shape during the interim by throwing simulated games, bullpens, doing flat-ground work, long toss—whatever it took to remain sharp. UCLA could have brought back ace Adam Plutko on four days of rest Friday, but Savage said he thought about it “for less than five seconds.”
“We know how good Grant is,” Savage said. “He’s been a big reason why we’re here. And he was ready to pitch. And I think he showed the whole country that he could pitch on a big stage.”
Watson picked right up where he left off, allowing just four hits over six shutout innings. He walked one and struck out three, needing just 69 pitches to breeze through those six frames. He allowed just one UNC batter to reach second base.
“He mixed his pitches well, and a lot of first-pitch strikes, which is important,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “He’s a strike-thrower and just kept our guys off balance just enough.”
North Carolina ace Kent Emanuel was much better Friday than in his previous two starts, when he failed to make it through three innings each time. But he was not as efficient as Watson, throwing 112 pitches over his six innings. He gave up a pair of runs (one earned) on five hits and three walks, but he also struck out seven. Two of his strikeouts ended the second and sixth innings, stranding the bases loaded each time.
But UCLA strung together hits in each of those two innings to scratch across a couple of runs, taking a commanding 2-0 lead. The Bruins had just six hits in the game, but they came at the right times. Cody Regis hit an RBI single through the right side to put UCLA ahead 1-0 in the second, and Kevin Williams chopped another RBI single over first baseman Cody Stubbs’ head in the sixth. Eric Filia broke the game open with a two-run double into the left-field corner in the seventh.
“It was our style of baseball,” Savage said. “What can you say? It was pitching, solid defense, opportunistic offense. I thought we had better at-bats tonight, I really did. We had a few more walks. We used the middle of the field better, and I think we’re capable offensively. I’ve said that all along. We’ve got good offensive players. They’re just as good as any part of our game—and we do feel that way. I know that if you look at the scores, you probably won’t write it up that way, but there’s a lot of faith and trust in our players.”
UCLA closer David Berg, a first-team All-American, has banked more than his share of faith and trust over the last two years. So when UNC loaded the bases with no outs in the ninth, Savage simply made a mound visit and returned to his dugout, confident that Berg would find a way out of it.
Savage conceded that Berg hasn’t had as many clean innings over the last two weeks, but that’s also a testament to the caliber of offenses the Bruins have faced. North Carolina—the preseason No. 1, the No. 1 national seed, the only team in the nation that has not lost back-to-back games all season, the team with more wins (59) than any other team in college baseball—kept fighting until the very end, as usual. But Berg just kept throwing his sinker, getting Mike Zolk to ground into an RBI fielder’s choice, then striking out Parks Jordan, then ending the game by getting red-hot Landon Lassiter to line out to center field.
“We’ve pitched out of problems very well,” Savage said, referring to UCLA’s postseason run. “And we’ve made big pitches, and we’ve made big plays, and we haven’t panicked. We’ve kept on staying on track, and kept on competing. That’s who we are.
“You’ve got to make pitches. That offense right there (UNC), they have a couple guys with 75, 90 RBIs. We’ve got a couple guys with 40. What are we? You’ve got to play that game on that day, and we’ve done that well. Whoever we’ve played, it doesn’t matter who you play, where you play, they’ve competed, and I think that is the best attribute you can say about a team. I think, fortunately, we’ve come out on top in a lot of tight games. Who’s kidding who? I mean, come on. A lot of tight games, but there’s got to be something there to allow you to do that. It’s not all luck.”
Just ask South Carolina, or Oregon State, or any number of other programs that have won championships. For that matter, ask Mississippi State. The word “mojo” was applied to South Carolina countless times over the last three years, and it came up again Friday night when Savage was asked about the Bulldogs.
“They’ve got a lot of mojo,” he said.
So do the Bruins.