The road to Omaha wasn’t the straightest and wasn’t well-paved for UCLA.
The Bruins lost to Minnesota and Baylor during a 3-2 start. Dropped two of three in Pac-12 series with Arizona State, Oregon State and Stanford. And even though UCLA had a relatively easy time in its NCAA regional, it went to Cal State Fullerton as an underdog for super regionals after losing regular-season games 9-6 and 5-2 to the Titans.
So predicting that this season would continue all the way into the CWS championship series might have been a little bold.
“I just think we’ve been getting better all year,” Bruins shortstop Pat Valaika said Sunday. “Each series through the year we’ve continued to strive to get better and grow as a team.”
If it came together at one time, Valaika said it was probably at Fullerton, which was ranked No. 3 by Baseball America heading into the postseason. The Bruins beat CSF 5-3 in 10 innings and 3-0 as part of what is now a nine-game winning streak.
“No one thought we’d win a game there, and that was really special,” Valaika said.
Was there a turning point along the way for a team that went 21-9 in Pac-12 play and finished third? Bruins pitcher Adam Plutko pointed to the finale of a nonconference three-game series with Loyola Marymouth in mid-April when UCLA allowed the Lions to escape Westwood with a 4-1 win.
“It was kind of like a wake-up call, I felt, for our team,” Plutko said. “We all came pretty close together after that and said, ‘You know, we’ve got to play better. We’ve got to finish weekends, and we’ve got to handle the details better.’ That is when I felt like we started playing a better style of baseball.”
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Hitter to watch
1B Pat Gallagher: Gallagher has had a solid postseason, hitting .429 in eight NCAA tournament games (12 of 28), with seven RBIs and a .500 slugging percentage. The junior first baseman from Reno, Nev., knocked in two runs as UCLA clinched its super-regional title with a 3-0 win over Cal State Fullerton.
CF Brian Carroll: .257, 46 Rs, 20 RBIs, 30 SBs
3B Kevin Kramer: .276, 3 HRs, 41 RBIs, 9 SBs
RF Eric Filia: .271, 1 HR, 26 RBIs, 9 SBs
SS Pat Valaika: .250, 5 HRs, 46 RBIs, 8 SBs
DH Kevin Williams: .231, 1 HR, 12 RBIs, 4 SBs
1B Pat Gallagher: .283, 1 HR, 7 2Bs, 20 RBIs
C Shane Zeile: .229, 2 HRs, 22 Rs, 20 RBIs
2B Cody Regis: .233, 17 Rs, 8 2Bs, 19 RBIs
LF Brenton Allen: .243, 15 Rs, 2 HRs, 13 RBIs
Pitcher to watch
RP David Berg: It all begins with the UCLA starting rotation, but it’s Berg who finishes the job for the Bruins. The side-arming walk-on is tied for the national lead with 23 saves and was named the Pac-12 pitcher of the year. Berg has appeared in 49 of 64 games — and all three in Omaha — and heads into the CWS championship series with a 7-0 record and 0.96 ERA. Opponents are hitting just .197 against him, and Berg has struck out 77 in 75 1⁄3 innings.
SP Adam Plutko: 9-3, 2.29 ERA, 79 Ks
SP Nick Vander Tuig: 13-4, 2.31 ERA, 87 Ks
SP Grant Watson: 9-3, 3.01 ERA, 55 Ks
RP David Berg: 7-0, 0.96 ERA, 77 Ks
RP James Kaprielian: 0-0, 1.59 ERA, 53 Ks
RP Cody Poteet: 4-6, 4.84 ERA, 56 Ks
RP Zack Weiss: 2-1, 2.27 ERA, 27 Ks
.248: The Bruins’ team batting average won’t wow anybody, and Pat Gallagher actually leads the way with a .283 mark. UCLA has just two extra-base hits in three CWS games (a pair of doubles) and a total of eight runs.
UCLA will win if
The pitching and defense keep coming. It’s not surprising that you haven’t lost yet in Omaha when you’ve allowed one run in each of your first three games. The other good part for the Bruins is that their weekend rotation remains intact for the CWS championship series, with Adam Plutko, Nick Vander Tuig and Grant Watson all rested and ready to go as if it were a Pac-12 weekend.