In their second trip to the College World Series in as many years, the UCLA Bruins are in Omaha, Neb., with the goal of finishing what was started on last year’s trip.
“We have a little bit of unfinished business,” said sophomore relief pitcher David Berg. “This time around, we’re really focused on getting the job done and getting that first national championship in program history.”
The Bruins face LSU on today at 5 p.m. PT at T.D. Ameritrade Park.
The 2012 Bruins looked to have set the tone with a strong open in the College World Series when UCLA’s all-time postseason wins leader Adam Plutko limited the Cinderella team of the event, Stony Brook, to just one earned run in a 9-1 win.
But the Bruins then fell to eventual champion and Pac-12 foe Arizona and were eliminated by Florida State. It was a much different team in a much different frame of mind.
“Last year, we were really happy to be there. The juniors last year went as freshmen and were really happy to kind of get back,” Berg said.
“We didn’t really do what we wanted there,” said junior shortstop Pat Valaika. “Now, we want to win. We don’t just want to go to Omaha.”
The team last year was one that was easily able to get the big hits and big performances that typically punctuate a postseason run.
But this year, the Bruins (44-17) are batting just .251 – 54 points less than last year’s team.
It’s evident from the numbers that the offensive firepower has lacked this season as key players from the 2012 playoff run like Jeff Gelalich, Beau Amaral and Cody Keefer all moved on with their careers.
“We have good players, we have talented players but we lost a lot of players off last years club,” said coach John Savage. “We knew that we had very good pitching but we had a lot of questions offensively. And it’s taken time. It has taken time to kind of have them form their identity.”
For the players, it was a challenge to build chemistry with far less offensive production than in years past.
“Offense is easier to build chemistry than pitching-wise,” Berg said. “Last year, we started hitting home runs, we started manufacturing those big wins, those 10-run wins. That’s really where you have a lot of fun, that’s where you tend to get kind of loose, whereas with pitching, you’ve really got to be kind of detailed with your pitching and using defense the way that we are to win games.”
But the one thing UCLA has an abundance of is quality pitching. The ERA of 2.69 is ranked No. 9 in the country and the bullpen has been touted as one of the best in the nation.
“I think it’s a great weapon,” said Berg, the All-American closer. “We’re excited every time we go in the game, it means we have a lead or are at least tied.
“We get the ball in our hands and the Bruins are going to win.”
“We like our arms, we like our bullpen,” Savage said. “We kind of work from the back up, it’s the old quality start – if you can go six innings with three earned runs we’ll take it.”
Finding ways to manufacture wins means a reliance on a defense, which has made very few mistakes all season.
“T.D. Ameritrade is a ginormous ballpark. Not many balls go out of there,” Valaika said. “The team that is going to be successful is the team that can pitch and play defense the best.”
“We play solid defense plus we make the highlight-worthy plays,” Berg said. “We not only make the routine plays, we go out there and make some great plays.”