One of the season’s most anticipated games took place here in Los Angeles on Friday, as No. 5 Vanderbilt (the 2014 national champion) took on No. 6 UCLA (the 2013 national champ) in a matchup between two teams with an aggregate record of 21-3 heading into the day. It was a battle between two hot offenses and two marquee junior righthanders, and Vanderbilt’s Carson Fulmer got the better of UCLA’s James Kaprielian, as the Commodores won 6-0. The reigning champs looked like the part of the juggernaut, stringing together quality at-bats, playing strong defense (especially in the middle infield) and holding UCLA’s potent offense scoreless.Kaprielian was not sharp in the first two innings, and Vandy capitalized. He walked leadoff man Bryan Reynolds to start the game, then surrendered back-to-back singles to Rhett Wiseman and Dansby Swanson, as the Commodores jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first and never looked back. Kaprielian struggled to locate his 88-91 mph fastball early in the game and also left his 83-85 slider up in the zone. He found his feel for his 78-81 curveball starting in the second inning and relied upon it heavily. He kept UCLA in the game with three consecutive strikeouts in the second to strand runners at second and third, and the last two punchouts in that frame were on very good back-foot curveballs to lefthanded hitters Reynolds and Wiseman. He struck out four more batters over the next two innings before serving up a homer to Wiseman on a changeup in the fifth, and allowing a leadoff double to Will Toffey in the sixth. That turned into a two-run rally that effectively put the game out of reach. But the tone was set in the first inning.
“We know the kid has a lot of confidence in his secondary pitches, but you had to stay on fastball and you had to keep the zone,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said of his team’s plan of attack against Kaprielian. “We had to keep command of the strike zone as much as possible offensively, and if he was going to throw the secondary pitches away from us or down, then we had to do a nice job of not offering. I think we were fortunate to get a great first at-bat by Reynolds to get eight pitches, then we executed the hit-and-run, and from there we kind of threw the first punch, so to speak, and after that there were some add-on runs. But he’s just a guy that you just have to hang in there with because he’s not going to give in, so you just have to stay with him. There were some innings later that were a little quicker, but we did some nice damage in the first three innings.”
Fulmer’s stuff was more electric; he held his 91-94 mph velocity throughout his 6.1 inning outing and touched 95 several times. As the game wore on, he did a better job finishing his 79-82 mph power curveball and also showed good feel for his 86-88 changeup, which he occasionally threw right-on-right. UCLA had its share of scoring opportunities against Fulmer, who issued five walks and hit a batter, but he made big pitches in tight spots, as he usually does, to escape unscathed. The biggest spot came in the second, when he struck out dangerous Kevin Kramer on a 93 mph fastball to strand the bases loaded.
“I really thought Vanderbilt outplayed us in every phase,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “They out-pitched us; now, we did get good swings off Fulmer early, and we had some chances. He didn’t crack. He bent, but he didn’t crack. You’ve got to give him credit because he walked five, and we chased a couple 3-2 pitches that were, you know, balls. He hit a guy. But he didn’t give up one run. So you’ve got to give him credit for making pitches when he had to. I thought they clearly had better at-bats throughout the game, and they pecked away. So they outplayed us in every phase. And they deserved to win, and we deserved to lose.”