Omaha and the rest of the college baseball world should be used by now to how UCLA has maneuvered to within one win of a national championship.
The Bruins pitch like crazy, defend like demons and take advantage of the smallest of openings on offense. They showcased all three of those characteristics in pulling out a 3-1 College World Series victory over Mississippi State in Monday's opening game of the best-of-three championship series.
“It was kind of a Bruin game,” UCLA coach John Savage said.
UCLA will send 13-game winner Nick Vander Tuig to the mound Tuesday to try to lock up its first national baseball championship. Mississippi State (51-19) is undecided on its pitching plans after Monday's loss before 25,690 at TD Ameritrade Park put its championship hopes on the brink.
The Bulldogs played well but the Bruins were just a little better in all aspects of the game. UCLA capitalized on its limited opportunities, while Mississippi State left the bases loaded in one inning and squandered a key scoring chance in another.
“When we had the opportunity, we didn't get it done,” Mississippi State first baseman Wes Rea said. “If we do, it's a totally different ballgame. We're going to look at it, focus in and come back tomorrow and make those things happen.”
UCLA got another standout start from Adam Plutko and paraded relievers James Kaprielian, Zack Weiss and David Berg to the mound to finish off the win that left it 48-17.
The Bruins are so strong on the mound that it sometimes overshadows the brilliance in which they play in the field.
“Our defense has been our key to our success in our postseason run,” Savage said. “We haven't struck a whole lot of guys out. Our strikeouts are down really in the postseason, and we've been a strikeout program.
“It's a credit to our pitchers. It's a credit to our defense. I think any pitcher in our program will tell you that we rely on our defense.”
In 36 innings in Omaha, UCLA has made just two errors. The Bruins turned a couple of double plays in Monday's game, including one that bailed them out of a potentially dangerous spot in the seventh inning.
Plutko, who improved to 10-3 in winning his seventh career postseason game, left after allowing Trey Porter's leadoff single in the seventh. Kaprielian relieved and walked Nick Ammirati, leaving just about everyone in the pro-Mississippi State crowd knowing what was coming next.
Demarcus Henderson, who leads the Bulldogs in sacrifices, tried twice to get down a bunt to advance the runners. He fouled off both pitches, then hit a grounder that UCLA second baseman Cody Regis turned into a double play.
Kaprielian stranded Porter at third by retiring Adam Frazier on another grounder to Regis to end the inning.
“The double play against Henderson was a game changer,” Savage said. “He doesn't get the bunt down and we turn the double play.”
UCLA, which has allowed a total of four runs in posting its four wins in Omaha, turned the game over to Weiss to start the eighth. He got an out but hit Hunter Renfroe with a pitch to bring Berg into the game.
Berg got a double play to end the inning, then pitched around a couple of singles to record his NCAA-record 24th save of the season. It came in his 50th appearance, making him the only pitcher in Division I history to record back-to-back 50-appearance seasons.
“At this point, it really doesn't matter,” Berg said when asked about the record. “Records are meant to be broken but titles are what matter. If we all win a national championship, I'll enjoy that. But right now, I don't think about it.”
None of UCLA's six hits came after Eric Filia's two-run single with two outs in the fourth staked the Bruins to a 3-0 lead.
Filia also doubled in the first, advancing Kevin Kramer after he had reached first base on a third-strike wild pitch.
Pat Valaika followed with a single to make it 1-0. Filia's two-out single in the fourth brought home two unearned runs off Chad Girodo, the Bulldogs' left-hander who continued his string of brilliant pitching the NCAA tournament.
Girodo relieved starter Trevor Fitts in the second inning and limited UCLA to three hits while striking out nine in the final 7 2/3 innings.
In four tournament appearances, Girodo has struck out 43 batters in 27 innings while giving up five earned runs. He might have gotten out of the fourth without yielding a run had not Ammirati, the Bulldogs' catcher, thrown away Brian Carroll's sacrifice bunt.
“Chad came in and pitched well,” Mississippi State coach John Cohen said. “It doesn't happen a lot when you punch out 12 guys and your guys strike out twice. That's not an equation we lose a whole lot.”