OMAHA—Louisiana State knew what it would be up against in Adam Plutko, and Plutko beat the Tigers anyway.
The UCLA righthander added to his sterling postseason resume with seven innings of one-run ball against the potent Tigers offense, leading the Bruins to a 2-1 win in a tightly contested College World Series opening-round matchup. Plutko picked up his sixth win in seven career postseason starts while dropping his postseason ERA to a microscopic 0.87.
|Game At A Glance|
|Turning Point: LSU shortstop Alex Bregman is a first-team All-American and one of the top candidates for Freshman of the Year honors, but he's made four errors in six NCAA tournament games, the last of which cost the Tigers dearly Sunday. UCLA's Eric Filia hit what should have been an inning-ending grounder to Bregman in the eighth, but the freshman wasn't able to glove it and allowed the go-ahead run to score.
The Hero: Adam Plutko responded to the CWS stage for the second straight year. He beat Stony Brook in the Bruins' 2012 CWS opener and was even more impressive in the same role against the No. 4 national seed Tigers. Sunday was the fourth straight start Plutko's gone seven innings, and his seventh straight allowing two runs or less.
You Might Have Missed: LSU starter Aaron Nola had a 20 2/3 innings scoreless streak snapped when UCLA scored its first run of the night in the sixth. Both runs the Bruins scored Sunday were unearned, and Nola still hasn't given up an earned run in the NCAA tournament. He allowed five runs (all unearned) in his regional start against Sam Houston State and shut out Oklahoma in super regionals.
The Tigers did everything they could to get ready for Plutko, a known fly-ball pitcher who thrives on tempting hitters with high fastballs in the upper 80s that look hittable. Staying on top of the ball against Plutko is easier said than done, though, and so many of those fastballs result in nothing more than weak flys.
"We worked all week on it," LSU coach Paul Maineri said. "We set pitching machines, throwing fastballs chest-high trying to lay off of it, get on top of it. We worked real hard on it. I thought we had a pretty good plan ready and we just couldn’t execute it."
It's not that Plutko was untouchable—he had just two strikeouts and the Tigers did hit several balls hard. Mason Katz belted the first homer for any team all weekend when he drove an 89 mph Plutko fastball into the left-field bullpen in the fourth inning, giving the Tigers a 1-0 lead, and Christian Ibarra twice flew out to the warning track in left.
"They did get some good swings off Adam," UCLA coach John Savage said. "They hit some balls hard. Adam, I think, pitched to the ballpark a little bit. That’s his strength. He’s a fly-ball pitcher. I think anybody that follows us knows that."
Plutko's style plays to spacious TD Ameritrade Park perfectly, and those drives by Ibarra that might have gone out of other parks went for harmless outs Sunday. The junior induced 13 fly outs compared to just six groundouts over his seven innings, limiting the Tigers to just four hits and walking two.
And as usual, Plutko had little margin for error.
The Bruins already have to scrap for every run they can get and couldn't count on much against Southeastern Conference pitcher of the year Aaron Nola. Nola held up his end of the deal, mixing his changeup with an effective backdoor breaking ball against the Bruins' lefty-leaning lineup while filling the bottom of the zone with mostly 89-91 mph fastballs.
However, his usually reliable defense failed him. The Tigers came into the CWS as the No. 5 fielding team in the country, with a .980 fielding percentage as a group, but uncharacteristic defensive miscues doomed them against UCLA.
The Bruins hadn't been able to cash in after getting a man in scoring position against Nola in the fourth and again in the fifth. They finally did so in the sixth, with a little help from the Tigers. Center fielder Brian Carroll led off the inning with a bunt single and got to second when Tigers catcher Ty Ross threw the ball away. A groundout and sac fly later, the game was tied.
"It was a good drag. Carroll can run, and as we all know speed creates pressure," Savage said. "And I think there was a little pressure there. And (Ross) happened to throw the ball away. So, opportunistic would be the word."
The Bruins got their leadoff man on for the fifth straight inning when pinch-hitter Ty Moore led off the eighth with a single. Carroll sacrificed him to second, but Nola got the struggling Kevin Kramer to fly to left for the second out. When he got ahead 0-2 on Eric Filia, the boisterous, pro-LSU crowd rose to its feet, anticipating Nola sending the game to the bottom of the eighth when LSU would have the top of its order due.
Instead, disaster struck. Filia hit a grounder hard but only a couple steps to the left of Tigers shortstop Alex Bregman. It's a play Bregman has made many times, but this time the ball skipped up on him and went off his glove into center, and pinch-runner Christoph Bono raced in to score the go-ahead run.
"My last at-bat I really was just trying to stay short with two strikes," Filia said, "and luckily enough I hit the ball hard to the shortstop and made him try to field the ball, and fortunately it went in my favor and got the run in."
LSU mounted a threat in the bottom of the ninth against usually rock-steady Bruins closer David Berg, as Katz led off with a hard grounder to short and reached on what was ruled a throwing error but easily could have been an infield single. Raph Rhymes came up next and initially showed bunt, but Berg missed with his first two pitches, at which point the Tigers chose to take the bunt off.
"Once the count got 2-0, I knew Mason was a very heady baserunner and he wouldn’t get picked off," Maineri said, "and I figured Berg, who throws a lot of strikes, was going to have to lay one in there, assuming he was going to bunt again. And so we decided to take a gamble there and go with the hit and run."
Rhymes swung away and hit it hard but right at Bruins third baseman Kevin Kramer, who started a momentum-killing 5-4-3 double play. The Tigers' next two hitters reached, but Berg got JaCoby Jones to hit a routine fly to right field for the final out.
The Bruins improved to 16-2 in one-run games, and Sunday was right in their comfort zone.
"At the end of the day it was our type of game," Savage said.