OMAHA—David Berg bounded out of the UCLA dugout, down the first-base line toward the bullpen to help his teammates pack their things after yet another victory. He encountered freshman set-up man James Kaprielian and couldn’t contain himself, smiling broadly and exchanging a stylized high-five.
Berg clearly knew the import of what he had done on this gorgeous summer evening at TD Ameritrade Park, getting the final five outs of another Bruins victory. This one, a 3-1 defeat of Mississippi State, put UCLA a game away from a College World Series championship but also gave Berg his 24th save, setting a single-season Division I record.
If Berg was thinking about that, or about his 100th career appearance—he’s the first hurler to pitch in 50 games in multiple seasons—he didn’t let on at the postgame press conference.
“At this point it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “Records are made to be broken, but titles are what matter. So if we all win a national championship, I’ll enjoy that. But right now, I don’t think about it at all.”
The previous mark of 23 was set on two occasions, one coming this season by Tyler Rogers of Austin Peay State. Like Berg, Rogers is a low-slot righthander, and his mark is almost more impressive considering the Governors were eliminated in regional play.
The original holder of the mark of 23 was Jack Krawczyk, who like Berg set his record in Omaha. Krawczyk was the closer for Southern California in 1998, an Arizona native who helped lead the Trojans to their last title. His 23rd save, the 49th of his career (also a record at the time), came in USC’s 21-14 national title game victory against Arizona State.
Krawczyk entered perhaps the most infamous game in college baseball history—the one that ended the era of minus-5 bats and the 48-team tournament field—with the score 16-14 in the eighth and worked out of a jam before the Trojans, naturally, piled up five more runs in the ninth. It was the last game of college baseball’s “gorilla ball” era, when supercharged bats were the rule and Rosenblatt Stadium had 360-foot power alleys.
Berg had it easier when he broke the record, in terms of how much less offensive the college game is today. With his submarine sinkers and sliders, he can induce grounder after grounder against BBCOR-wielding college players of today, seemingly with impunity. He allowed a pair of ninth-inning hits but escaped unscathed as he has so often this season, improving to 7-0, 0.94 with 77 strikeouts in as many innings.
UCLA coach John Savage has used Berg deftly and often, and he also was Krawczyk’s pitching coach 15 years ago. Not coincidentally, Savage also coached Blair Erickson for his freshman season at UC Irvine as he went on to break Krawczyk’s career saves record. So this guy seems to know something about closers.
He remembered Krawczyk fondly when asked about the player whose record Berg broke. He had a higher arm slot than Berg but thrived in a similar fashion, with finesse over power. Krawczyk's slogan in Omaha that year was, "When in doubt, throw the trout," his nickname for his "dead-fish" changeup.
“He was there before I got there, and coach (Mike) Gillespie can tell you the story better than I can,” Savage said, tacitly acknowledging that Gillespie can tell any baseball story better than anyone else. “I think they were struggling on the mound; Krawczyk was throwing BP, and it was strikes, it was strikes, it was strikes. Finally Mike said, ‘Put him in the game.’ And it became magical.
“His changeup was devastating. I think I called like 25 changeups in the national championship game. You could tell the hitter it was coming and he still wouldn’t hit it. He was phenomenal at USC.”
That’s back when USC was phenomenal, winning its 12th national championship before falling into disrepair after Gillespie was fired following the 2006 season. The Trojans, who missed regionals in three of Gillespie’s last four years, have not been to a regional since.
Meanwhile Savage, who helped the Trojans to their last glory, has made rival UCLA—the program that USC fans once derided for its paltry two CWS trips in 1968 and 1997—a true powerhouse. It’s the Bruins’ third trip to Omaha in four seasons, and UCLA is still churning out big leaguers as it did in Gary Adams' day–or haven't you noticed Gerrit Cole debuting with the Pirates this month throwing 100 mph more consistently than any big league starter?
Somewhere on a USC message board, or perhaps over drinks at the Jonathan Club in Los Angeles, Trojans alumni are wondering aloud just how Chad Kreuter, and not Savage, became Gillespie’s replacement, or how Gillespie remains a good coach into his early 70s, leading UC Irvine to regionals regularly while the Trojans still try to find their way.
Now Savage has the Bruins poised to become not just the best program in Southern California but in the nation. Mississippi State still has something to say about that, but for the Bulldogs to beat the Bruins, they likely will have to go through Berg.
Contributing: Aaron Fitt