The combination of some million-dollar arms and a nickel-and-dime offense has carried UCLA within two wins of a national championship.
The Bruins earned a spot in the final series of the college baseball season Friday by knocking North Carolina out of the College World Series with a 4-1 victory before 25,947 fans at TD Ameritrade Park.
The win completed a sweep of Bracket Two for UCLA, which now will play Mississippi State in the best-of-three championship series that begins Monday.
“We’ve still not accomplished what we came here to do,’’ UCLA coach John Savage said. “But it’s on to the next round, and I can’t be happy enough and proud enough of our team.’’
The Bruins have scored a total of eight runs in their three wins in Omaha. That matches Eastern Michigan in 1976 for the fewest runs scored by a team that won its first three CWS games in the metal-bat era.
While its offense can be tough on the eyes at times, UCLA’s pitching and defense are capable of keeping the Bruins in any game. UCLA has allowed just three runs in Omaha and held opposing hitters to a .172 batting average. Its defense has made just one error at the CWS and five in eight NCAA tournament wins.
“It’s all about taking advantage of your opportunities,’’ said designated hitter Kevin Williams, who drove in one of the Bruins’ runs on Friday. “If there’s something to be taken, take it and don’t give them a chance to take advantage of anything.
“Everything matters, and every little thing is magnified.’’
While the Bruins have trotted out some pitchers in Omaha who will have a chance to make some big money at the next level, their hitters have succeeded by squeezing everything they can out of limited opportunities.
UCLA got just six hits against North Carolina, but three produced runs — an RBI single by Cody Regis in the second inning, Williams’ run-scoring single in the sixth and Pat Valaika’s two-run double in the seventh.
“We’re hot at the right time,’’ Regis said.
Friday’s victory stretched UCLA’s winning streak to nine games, eight coming in the NCAA tournament. The Bruins have recorded two shutouts in the tournament and came within three outs of getting a third against a North Carolina team that led the nation in scoring this season.
Only a ninth-inning burp by normally dependable closer David Berg kept the Bruins from holding the Tar Heels scoreless for just the second time this season.
North Carolina opened the ninth with two singles and a walk. A force out scored the run that pulled the Tar Heels within three runs, and they had a chance to do further damage when a Berg walk reloaded the bases with two outs.
He finished off the threat by getting Landon Lassiter to hit a fly ball to center field, sending North Carolina to just its 12th loss in 71 games this season.
“What we did in the ninth inning is just indicative of our kids and how we played all year,’’ North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “We fought until the end. I’m sorry to see our season come to an end, but I’m glad it ended here in Omaha, that’s for sure.’’
UCLA will play on, getting another dynamite performance from its starter and solid work from its bullpen. Grant Watson, a sophomore left-hander who hadn’t pitched since a June 2 regional final win over San Diego, held North Carolina to four hits in six innings.
He struck out three, walked one and hit a batter in improving to 9-3.
“I was trying to go pitch by pitch, concentrating on my location since I knew North Carolina has a bunch of great hitters,’’ Watson said. “I knew I wasn’t going to throw it by them, so I worried about locating and mixing speeds.’’
North Carolina, which had averaged 5.1 runs and was hitting .300 in its first 10 tournament games, didn’t get a runner past second base against Watson. He left after giving up a leadoff single in the seventh, but James Kaprielian and Zack Weiss continued to stymie North Carolina’s hitters.
Kaprielian hit the second batter he faced to put runners at first and second but used a lineout and a strikeout to end the inning. Weiss pitched around a one-out single in the eighth before Berg, who had a 0.85 ERA, seven wins and 23 saves, hit a rough patch in the final inning.
“He’s one of the major reasons we’re here,’’ Savage said. “He can screw up every now and then. He had the bases loaded and nobody out, and he did a great job pitching out of it. He’s had a lot of clean innings. Tonight, it wasn’t a clean inning.’’
UCLA will take its 47-17 record into its second appearance in the championship final in four seasons. The Bruins made it to the final series in 2010, losing in two games to South Carolina.
Mississippi State wrapped up its spot in the final by also winning 4-1 over Oregon State on Friday. Like UCLA, the Bulldogs’ next loss in Omaha will be their first one.
“They’ve got a lot of mojo going,’’ Savage said. “They’ve got a good offense and their pitching is very impressive. It looks to be similar teams.
“I guess you could say on paper they would be more offensive, but we take care of the baseball defensively and we pitch and we know ourselves. At this stage, it’s really about what you’re doing as a team and making sure you have a right mindset.’’
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