Winning the arms race
Small, but dependable pitching staff has Bruins on cusp of title
OMAHA, Neb. -- The days of College World Series games ending 12-11 appear to be long over, having been replaced by shutouts and spectacular pitching performances.
And that’s just fine with UCLA.
See, that’s why the Bruins are here. They hit just .248 as a team, including a paltry .182 in the CWS, and have hit 19 home runs as a team. The stats really don’t add up with the position the Bruins are in if you just look at the offensive categories. You need to look past them. Because when you do, you see perfectly why this team is in the CWS finals for the second time in four years.
UCLA head coach John Savage loves pitching. He’s known as a pitching guru and has always had teams stockpiled with quality arm after quality arm. He’s only used 11 pitchers all season -- four of which combined for 26 innings. That means Savage has relied upon seven guys and only six once they reached the postseason.
Think about that for a second. Six pitchers. North Carolina used eight pitchers in one game at the 2013 College World Series. Savage has used six in eight games.
“It’s kind of how we’ve drawn it up,” Savage said. “When you have to use more than eight or nine pitchers, that means some guys are scuffling. Our guys haven’t scuffled. What are you going to do? Sit there and hope we can use more guys? As a coach, we haven’t lost a game in the postseason because guys have done their job.”
It’s the two at the top of the rotation that have bred familiarity for the Bruins. Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig were at the front end of the rotation a year ago when UCLA made it to Omaha. Having the same two who have done it before helps a ton.
“I think the experience has really helped us,” Vander Tuig said. “We’ve tried to pass it on to the freshman pitchers coming in who weren’t with us last year. It’s great to be able to tell them what to expect.”
It also hasn’t hurt to pitch behind a guy like Plutko.
“We’re very similar pitchers,” Vander Tuig said. “We don’t have overpowering stuff; we like to change speeds. I pitch more down in the zone than him, but we’re both bulldogs out there on the mound.”
A lot of times, the top two guys on a staff will be different. Maybe one’s a lefty and the other a righty. Not these two. Plutko -- who will take the ball Monday night in Game 1 of the CWS Finals -- is 6-foot-3, 192 pounds. Vander Tuig? He’s got the same back of a baseball card except three pounds heavier. Both are junior righthanders. Both are from Southern California, growing up 50 miles away from one another. And they’ll both tell you, they don’t have overpowering stuff.
When UCLA was in this spot in 2010, they had a hard-throwing 1-2 punch in its rotation which included two top-three draft picks -- Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer. Not these guys. Plutko and Vander Tuig won’t throw in the mid-90s.
Savage has been able to set up his pitching staff exactly how he wants it. Plutko, Vander Tuig or Grant Watson -- UCLA’s under-the-radar third starter -- hand the ball to James Kaprielian, Zack Weiss or Cody Poteet, who then give it over to the one of the best college baseball closers in history, David Berg. These guys have been so good, he hasn’t even had to use a 32nd-round pick in this year’s draft, Ryan Deeter, in the postseason. Deeter’s thrown just 17 innings.
It’s every guy having a role and knowing exactly what that role is that has helped this team get here.
“I think about roles, I think about consistency,” Savage said. “We’ve had to do a ton of simulated games just to give some of those guys some work so they stay sharp. Grant Watson threw the other day on 19 days' rest and shut out North Carolina. I think guys have prepared at a very high level and they know what to do. That’s very comforting as a head coach.”
But back to Berg. One more save and he’ll break the Division I single-season record that he’s currently tied for with 23. His appearance Friday was the 99th of his career and 49th this year. He is the only player with multiple seasons of 45 or more appearances and has appeared in 15 consecutive postseason games for the Bruins.
If the sun comes up and UCLA has a game, you know the former walk-on will pitch. And that helps everyone, from the starter to the head coach.
“His attitude -- you’d like to say his stuff -- but it’s his resiliency and his competitive edge,” Savage said. “The guy is just everything you’d want. He believes in the pitch call, he believes in his catcher, and he believes in the team behind him.”
Even when Berg has been in trouble during his three outings in Omaha, there’s a sense of calm. Including Friday night when North Carolina loaded the bases with nobody out in a 4-0 game in the ninth.
“Coach came out and told me to slow things down,” Berg said of a mound visit from Savage in that ninth inning. “He told me that I was making quality pitches and that the law of averages would even things out. And it did.”
Remember, Berg isn’t coming into a lot of 8-1 games. Not with this team, which seems to have to grind out every game they play in. Almost every game is tight and the Bruins seem to excel just at the right time. They’ve gone 17-2 in games decided by one run and 9-1 in games decided by two.
“I don’t think you can talk about their club without talking about Berg first,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. “He’s pitched in so many ballgames. He’s got three different things that work for him: great command, incredible movement and deception. When you know he’s on the backend of the ballgame, you’re constantly thinking that you better beat the situation before he gets in there.”
UCLA’s brand of baseball leads to a lot of those wins. They dare you to make a mistake and when you do, they capitalize at an incredible rate. But you’d think that the pitching staff would have too much pressure on it for a team that has scored just eight runs in their three CWS victories. Not these guys.
“I’m not sure there is a lot of pressure there,” Plutko said. “We’ve played with each other all year long and there is a lot of trust. I’m sure you can look at it one way and say that it’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.”
So when you’re watching the Bruins this week against Mississippi State, it’ll more than likely be a low-scoring, close affair. You’ll see one of six guys on the mound with Berg throwing the last pitch of the game. And the way things have gone for UCLA, it’ll end with a dogpile.