UCLA, LSU Win Dramatic Openers

FULLERTON, Calif.—Cal State Fullerton was not sharp Friday. The Titans played uncharacteristically sloppy defense, turned in uncharacteristically uncompetitive at-bats and found themselves facing a two-run deficit against the perhaps nation’s most reliable closer in the eighth inning. Fullerton battled back to tie the game against David Berg, but UCLA proved the more resilient team Friday.

The Bruins scored twice in the 10th inning to win the opener of the Fullerton Super Regional, 5-3, in front of a lively sellout crowd of 3,244. The four-hour, five-minute affair was wrought with tense, drawn-out at-bats in the late innings, dramatic momentum swings and emotion.

UCLA ace Adam Plutko turned in a typical Plutko performance on a very atypical day. The No. 179 prospect in the BA 500, Plutko went undrafted in the top 10 rounds, which concluded shortly before he took the mound Friday. He proceeded to allow just one unearned run on six hits and a walk over seven strong innings. After recording a pair of flyball outs to strand the tying run at second base in the seventh, the normally stoic Plutko pumped his fist repeatedly and let out a couple of primal screams as he walked toward the dugout.

Adam Plutko

Adam Plutko (Photo by Larry Goren)

“A very emotional night for Adam, a three-time Pac-12 all-conference pitcher. To sit there and not get drafted, to say the least, is difficult,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “I don’t know why they do it, but they do it at this time. It makes this night even more special. You just don’t know how they’re going to respond. I think you have to say if you’re a Bruin fan or follower that this is one of the better performances in the history of UCLA baseball. I don’t want to overstate that, but you’ve got to realize this is a guy that’s won almost 30 games at the Division I level. I don’t care who you are—that’s difficult.

“I’ve been around him for a long time, and it was very emotional for me, emotional for him . . . So you’ve got to feel for him. But he was a bulldog, and it was an impressive outing.”

In typical Plutko fashion, he succeeded by racking up flyball outs—13 of them over seven innings, including six pop-ups that were caught by infielders. Plutko executed his plan, while Fullerton did not execute its own.

“We didn’t catch the ball very good, we popped up really good,” Titans coach Rick Vanderhook said. “And our whole plan in work all week was to try to keep the ball out of the air. We didn’t do that. At one point we’d hit four ground balls, three for base hits. I didn’t think Justin (Garza) pounded the zone very well. But they beat us. We gave them too much. When you’re at this point in the season, you give away too much stuff, and you lose. That’s what happened.”

Garza called his performance a “bad start,” but he allowed just three runs on five hits and a walk over seven innings, and he gave his team a chance to win. An error by first baseman Carlos Lopez helped lead to a UCLA run in the third, and shortstop Richy Pedroza muffed a potential double play ball in the eighth, keeping the inning alive and leading to another UCLA run.

But the Titans still fought back in the eighth, as James Kaprielian walked the leadoff hitter, and the Bruins summoned Berg to take it from there. With his adrenaline pumping, Berg struggled to find the zone against Lopez, who also walked. After a sacrifice bunt, the Titans got two runs on an RBI groundout and an infield hit by Michael Lorenzen, tying the game 3-3. One pitch after swinging so hard that he nearly fell over—and did fall to one knee—Lorenzen shortened up with two strikes and hit a chopper over third baseman Kevin Kramer’s head to score the tying run.

“Lorenzen put it right where we couldn’t make a play. He did a great job,” Berg said. “From there, I knew I couldn’t let another thing like that happen.”

And he didn’t. After Berg worked a 1-2-3 ninth, UCLA took advantage of another Fullerton miscue in the 10th. After Brian Carroll’s one-out single against hard-throwing J.D. Davis, Kramer hit a line drive to right field that Austin Diemer got a glove on but couldn’t handle, putting two runners aboard.

“I don’t think Diemer’s ever dropped a line drive in right field, which ended up being the biggest play of the game,” Vanderhook said. “He catches that ball every time. And we didn’t do it tonight, and we paid the price.”

The next batter, Eric Filia, delivered a tie-breaking RBI single through the right side—his fourth single of the night. Filia struggled through a disappointing first half, but he has come on down the stretch and now finds himself hitting in the No. 3 hole for the Bruins. He showed a mature all-fields approach Friday, and he was right in the middle of two important UCLA rallies.

“He’s a talented hitter who hasn’t hit, is basically the deal,” Savage said of Filia. “And that’s not a knock. He’s one of the more talented hitters in our program for sure, and I think in the conference. He’s very, very capable, and I think you saw that tonight. But he’s had some big hits, in the last month, he’s had some big hits. You want him up there in a clutch situation—I think you saw that tonight.”

Filia isn’t your typical No. 3 hitter, with a .266/.382/.349 slash line, one homer and 24 RBIs. Of course, the Bruins are still hitting just .252 as a team, while the Titans are hitting .285, so the numbers almost make this matchup seem like a mismatch.

“I think everybody that plays us would say, ‘That team’s a little better than their numbers show.’ We’re that type of team,” Savage said. “We do have some quality at-bats, we can get on first. Our on-base percentage is pretty good for the batting average. We’ll fight you—that’s the identity we try to create.”

That identity was very apparent Friday. Plutko was snubbed by scouts—and he fought through the disappointment. Berg blew a save for just the second time this season—and the Bruins fought back to win.

Now we’ll see if Fullerton, which has lost back-to-back games just once all season (in early March), can fight its way back to even the series with freshman co-ace Thomas Eshelman on the mound Saturday.

“I trust my teammates that we’re going to be able to come back and play better baseball, and I trust that we’re the better team,” Lorenzen said. “I’m not worried about it; nothing’s changed.”

Nola Outduels Gray In Classic

Two of the four super regional games on Friday’s schedule were postponed by rain until Sunday, but the action in Fullerton and Baton Rouge provided more than enough quality theater for college baseball fans. The most anticipated pitching matchup of the weekend took place at in front of an Alex Box Stadium-record crowd of 11,095, as No. 3 overall pick Jonathan Gray matched up with SEC pitcher of the year Aaron Nola. Neither righthander disappointed.

The two teams battled to a scoreless tie through seven innings, but the Tigers finally broke through against Gray (7.1 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 9 K) with a pair of runs in the eighth, as JaCoby Jones tripled and scored on Tyler Moore’s pinch-hit double.

Aaron Nola (photo by Andrew Woolley)

Aaron Nola (photo by Andrew Woolley)

The masterful Nola did the rest, throwing a complete-game, two-hit shutout. He did not issue a walk and struck out six, needing just 102 pitches. He held the Sooners hitless until Matt Oberste’s double in the fifth. But Oklahoma mustered just three baserunners in the game, as Nola became the first LSU pitcher to throw a postseason shutout since Lane Mestepey in 2004. It was Nola’s third shutout of the season, tying a school record shared by three other Tigers (Randy Wiles, Ben McDonald and Brian Tallet).

“It was everything that everyone expected it to be,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said afterward. “It was as great of a pitching duel as you’ll ever see. On one hand, you have a guy who was picked the third pick in the draft in Jonathan Gray, and on the other hand you have Aaron Nola. Our guys have looked forward to facing Gray, but people might forget that we had a pretty good pitcher as well. I wouldn’t trade him for anyone in the world.”