Nati Harnik/Associated Press
Nati Harnik/Associated Press
It’s hard enough pitching against the nation’s best in the College World Series. It would seem even tougher when runs are so difficult to come by for your team.
UCLA’S Adam Plutko said when he heads to the mound tonight for Game 1 of the finals against Mississippi State, he’ll just worry about himself and believe that somehow, some way his teammates will come through.
So far, the Bruins have turned their total of eight runs into three wins.
“We’ve played with each other all year long, and there is a lot of trust,” Plutko said Sunday. “I’m sure you can look at it one way and say there’s a lot of pressure to hold a team. But at the same time, there is a lot of trust in the guys behind you.”
The Bruins’ pitchers have allowed a total of three runs at the CWS, with starters Plutko (9-3), Nick Vander Tuig and Grant Watson going at least six innings. Relievers James Kaprielian and Zack Weiss have combined for three innings of one-hit, shutout relief. Star closer David Berg has worked around trouble in two of his three appearances but has gotten the job done.
UCLA (47-17) will follow the same plan in the best-of-three finals matching programs looking for their first national championship in baseball.
Mississippi State coach John Cohen said he would start Trevor Fitts (0-0), who’ll be making only his sixth start of the season in 18 appearances.
The Bulldogs (51-18) have been the best-hitting team at the CWS, with a .297 average in wins over Oregon State (twice) and Indiana. Wes Rea is batting .462, best among players who have been in three or more CWS games, and Brett Pirtle is at .417.
Mississippi State’s average of 4.6 runs a game in Omaha is highest in a CWS on track to produce the least offense since the metal-bat era began in 1974.
Rea said he’s followed the Bruins from afar and is impressed with how they do things.
“They know how to win,” he said. “That is how you get here. It’s going to be a tremendous series. I have a lot of respect for those guys, and may the best man win.”
Pitching and defense have been UCLA’s identity since ninth-year coach John Savage took over. Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, the Nos. 1 and 3 draft picks in 2011, led the Bruins to the 2010 finals, where they were swept by South Carolina.
Plutko, Vander Tuig and Berg, the National Stopper of the Year, have led the Bruins to their third CWS appearance in four years. For Savage, it’s validation for his pitching-and-defense mantra.
“We don’t have the physicalness, as I look at it, of the Southeastern Conference,” Savage said. “Sometimes, I’ll look out there when we’re stretching and go, ‘Oh, God.’ It’s not a real physical-looking team. But they’re baseball players. We have talent. It’s just a little different way of creating a team.”
It would seem to be a smart way to go nowadays, given the way the bats have been dialed down to perform more like wood.
“You have to bob and weave and make adjustments in this game,” Savage said. “Rather than sit there and complain about (how) bat manufacturers are making them and size of the ballpark... Come, on, we keep on talking about certain things. It gets back down to good teams and good players.”
The Bruins have scored three or fewer runs in 29 of their 64 games, including in three of their last four.
They’re batting .182 in the CWS, with only two of their 16 hits going for extra bases.
UCLA has backed its outstanding pitching in Omaha by committing a total of one error in wins over LSU, North Carolina State and North Carolina.
The Bruins carry a nine-game win streak into the finals. They’re 19-4 since May 1 and came to the CWS off the momentum created by sweeping No. 5 national seed Cal State Fullerton in super regionals.
“Nobody thought we’d win a game there,” shortstop Pat Valaika said.
Few would have thought the Bruins could have won three straight in Omaha after scoring just eight runs.
For a small ball-playing team batting just .248 for the season, timing is everything. Mississippi State’s Cohen said that’s what makes UCLA dangerous.
“When you look at their numbers and watch them play, it’s pretty obvious they aren’t going to beat themselves,” he said. “When you see infielders with less than 10 errors in close to 70 games, that’s pretty remarkable.
“Everybody talks about their numbers offensively, but they get key hits, and when they get a guy on first base, they know how to get him in to score. It’ll be a tremendous challenge for us.”