OMAHA, Neb. -- Not even extra preparation can help teams prepare for UCLA junior right-handed pitcher Adam Plutko.
In the days leading up to Sunday's matchup between usually hard-hitting LSU and UCLA, the Tigers spent much time at practices using pitching machines to throw fastballs up near their letters, trying to mimic the talented UCLA right-handed pitcher. The book on Plutko was pretty simple -- he's typically a fly ball pitcher, and he's got a formula that has worked exceptionally well over the past three seasons.
Though LSU squared up a few balls off Plutko on Sunday, the big outfield of TD Ameritrade Park gobbled up most of those, Mason Katz's solo home run the exception. The outfield, along with yet another stellar performance from Plutko, sent LSU packing to the loser's bracket in a 2-1 setback.
"We worked all week on fastballs chest high. We had a pretty good game plan, but when he threw the fastball up, it was hard for our guys to lay off of it," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. "I thought we crushed three balls as hard as we could."
Such is life when you're facing Plutko.
While the Bruins went with the junior righty against the Tigers, LSU countered with All-American sophomore right-handed pitcher Aaron Nola. Nola has been fabulous all-season long, and like Plutko, put together a solid performance against UCLA.
The difference in the game were a couple of situations in the sixth and eighth innings. With the Tigers leading 1-0 in the top of the sixth inning, UCLA leadoff hitter Brian Carroll laid down a perfect bunt, causing LSU catcher Ty Ross to hurry a throw, which caromed down the right-field line, allowing Carroll to advance to second base. Carroll eventually scored on a sacrifice fly from Eric Filia.
Once again in the eighth inning, the Tigers had a chance to escape a potential jam. Freshman pinch-hitter Ty Moore led off the inning with a single, was sacrificed to second, then third baseman Kevin Kramer flied out. However, when Eric Filia hit a rocket to shortstop Alex Bregman, the usually reliable defender had an uncharacteristic error, allowing Moore to score from second, going on the pitch.
The Bruins had a 2-1 lead, and didn't look back with relievers James Kaprielian and David Berg leading the charge, though, Berg had some tense moments in the ninth inning with LSU getting the tying run on second base, and the winning run on first.
"They are a good defensive team and we've got some breaks. I think the ball to Bregman was hit pretty hard, and the bunt earlier in the game was fortunate," Savage said. "Carroll can run and his speed creates some pressure. I'd call our offense opportunistic."
The Bruins' opportunistic approach at the plate worked yet again, but the story of the game remains Plutko's ability to tame a lineup that entered the game with a .302 average in the NCAA postseason, plus plenty of pop in the lineup with Mason Katz, Alex Bregman, and others.
"If we play at Rosenblatt or Alex Box, who knows how many of those balls they hit go out," Savage said. "But you have to know the ballpark you're pitching in, and maybe in some of those moments, we don't go to those certain positions in those situations."
The tale of the tape on Plutko is impressive. He induced 13 fly balls and six ground outs in the contest, improving to an astonishing 6-0 in the NCAA postseason in his three-year college career.
From a stuff standpoint, Plutko was his typical self. He threw his fastball anywhere from 88-91, but stayed very much in the strike zone, elevating his pitches and striving for early contact, the exact recipe that has allowed him to become one of the more decorated pitchers in UCLA history.
"I think there's some deception to his fastball. He can pitch in the zone a little bit, and there are some mis-hits," Savage said. "If you look at his career, you look at the fly balls and the amount of homers, there aren't as many as you'd think. There's some deception on that FB, and teams really seem to get underneath the ball against him.
"It's not major velocity, but there are guys in the big leagues like him," continued Savage. "We pitch with the fastball so much, the strikeouts really are down, because we want early contact. We want to use our defense to get the job done and Adam is the poster child for that. He's a guy who just pounds the zone -- there's not a lot of trickery there."
LSU has spent much of the 2013 campaign causing major headaches for opposing pitchers, usually crushing starting pitchers lacking overpowering stuff.
However, Plutko was a different guy against the Tigers. Though he lacks overpowering stuff, Plutko for three seasons has been the ultimate pitchability guy for the Bruins.
And yet again, not even extra preparation from one of the nation's most potent offensive lineups could solve the equation that is Adam Plutko.
Plutko, an 11th-round pick to the Cleveland Indians, again had the right formula.
"You know, people say he doesn't throw hard enough, and that he lacks a breaking ball, and that he doesn't throw 94-96, but he performs," Savage said. "On this stage, it's all about performance. And he just performs."
CWS snapshot: Breaking down UCLA-LSU
Player of the game: RHP Adam Plutko, UCLA -- Plutko has been a workhorse for the Bruins for the past three seasons, and he's an Omaha veteran having pitched here two times before. Well, he pitched like a veteran Sunday night in the win over LSU. Plutko struck out just two batters, walked two, but also allowed just a run on four hits in seven innings of work, setting the stage for relievers James Kaprielian and David Berg, as usual, to come in to finish the game off.
Turning point: LSU has prided itself on being one of the nation's elite defensive clubs this season, but the Tigers failed in a big situation on Sunday. With two outs and a runner on second base, UCLA's Eric Filia roped a ball to usually reliable Tigers shortstop Alex Bregman. Bregman bobbled the ball and was unable to make the play, allowing Ty Moore to score from second base to make it 2-1 in favor of UCLA. The Bruins' bullpen, with some drama included, took care of the rest.
What they said: "I mean, if you look at it, I think we've been kind of flying under the radar all-year long. We just kind of -- we always talk about how we want to play our game. And we don't play the opponent, we play our game. And a team as good as LSU, if we try and compete with them, I think we get out of our game. We just kept stringing together quality at-bats, one right after the other. Finally, we were just lucky enough to break them down a bit. And I think that was the difference in the ballgame tonight." -- UCLA RHP Adam Plutko
What's next: Every perceived underdog entering the College World Series has had a little rash of good luck in the first round of games here in Omaha. UCLA was the latest team to accomplish that feat, advancing to Tuesday's winner's bracket game to face N.C. State, which defeated North Carolina 8-1 earlier in the day. The Bruins likely will start right-handed pitcher Nick Vander Tuig against the Wolfpack. For the Tigers, they head to the loser's bracket game against North Carolina, with either right-handed pitcher Ryan Eades or left-handed pitcher Cody Glenn on the bump. Interestingly, because of a suspension and going 2-0 last weekend against Oklahoma, Glenn hasn't pitched since May 22, seven shutout innings against Alabama.