OMAHA -- UCLA head coach John Savage has always had plenty of confidence in his starting pitchers -- all of them.
Many teams here in the College World Series have brought pitchers back on shorter than usual rest with the goal to win ballgames and advance in this tournament. Those decisions certainly won't receive criticism from us, after all, those coaches are like everyone else -- they're trying to win a national title.
But the sheer confidence Savage showed in sophomore left-handed pitcher Grant Watson on Friday night is mighty impressive, too.
Savage had a perfect opportunity to bring back ace right-handed pitcher Adam Plutko against a North Carolina lineup that entered the CWS with a .306 batting average, and that forced N.C. State ace left-handed pitcher Carlos Rodon out of the game earlier than perhaps expected in Thursday's elimination contest. Savage pondered that idea for five seconds.
He decided to start Grant Watson, a decision that could really pay dividends for the Bruins after beating North Carolina 4-1 to advance to the CWS Championship Series for the first time since 2010, a squad that included an outstanding rotation consisting of Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer and Rob Rasmussen.
"We have faith in anyone that we run out there," Savage said. "We prepare a lot of our guys for their role, and felt their days were too short, so we weren't comfortable with it [putting Plutko out there on short rest]. We know how good Grant is, and he was ready to pitch. He showed the country tonight he can pitch on the big stage, too."
It would've been understandable had Watson showed a few butterflies against the hard-hitting Tar Heels. He didn't pitch in the Fullerton Super Regional against the Titans, thanks to the Bruins going 2-0 against Fullerton. His last start? June 2nd against San Diego in the Los Angeles Regional, where he put together one of his best starts of the season, striking out five, walking just one and allowing one hit in seven shutout innings.
Despite the 19-day hiatus between starts, Watson was more than ready to pitch against the Tar Heels. He participated in plenty of simulated games during the break, and Savage applauded Watson for staying in shape and very sharp during that time period.
Watson couldn't have been more impressive against the Tar Heels. Knowing what UNC's lineup was capable of with Colin Moran, Skye Bolt, Cody Stubbs and others leading the charge, Watson figured out based on scouting reports that he wasn't going to be blowing many pitches past those sluggers with a fastball sitting 85-88. However, his four-pitch mix and ability to command the strike zone proved to be more than enough to carry the Bruins to victory.
"He pitches in with his fastball and he can throw his changeup in any count," Savage said. "He has two breaking balls and he shuts down the running game. You really can't run against him. You can hit him, but he doesn't give you too much to work with and he gets right-handed left-handed hitters out. He's a very complete pitcher for being so ordinary.
"Physically, it's not a big fastball, but he beat Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State twice as a freshman," Savage continued. "That made him grow up, and then all the little hiccups in his game were cleaned up. That's to his credit."
Though not quite the prospect of left-handed pitcher Rob Rasmussen, who served as the No. 3 starting pitcher on the 2010 team, which had Cole and Bauer, and played for the national title, he indeed has assumed the role of the very good pitcher who essentially becomes the silent assassin with No. 1 and No. 2 starting pitchers Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig getting much of the press, at least until tonight.
"There's some similarities there. This guy [Watson] throws a lot of strikes and keeps you in games. And he doesn't give up many extra-base hits," Savage said. "Teams haven't quite squared him up, he's a four-pitch mix type of guy, and it's a different puzzle to figure out. He thinks he's pretty good, and he's very competitive."
While Watson put together a great performance, striking out three, walking one and allowing just four hits in six shutout innings, the UCLA offense, shocker, was very opportunistic against the Tar Heels.
Senior second baseman Cody Regis, who has had some key hits in Omaha, roped a two-out RBI single in the second inning to get the scoring started in the contest, while Kevin Williams and Pat Valaika each provided big hits late in the game, with Valaika smacking a two-RBI double down the left-field line in the seventh inning that essentially put the game out of reach with the dominant nature of UCLA's bullpen.
Williams finished the night with a pair of hits, while Pat Gallagher, who has been fantastic in the NCAA postseason, had yet another multi-hit performance for the Bruins.
Though disappointing for North Carolina's season come to an end with a fabulous 59-12 overall record, the Tar Heels can take some solace that junior left-handed pitcher Kent Emanuel likely will end his collegiate career with something to be proud of. Emanuel hadn't been very sharp in several previous outings dating back to his relief appearance against Florida Atlantic in the Chapel Hill Regional.
However, on this night, in his final hurrah, Emanuel put together a gritty performance that has so typified him over the past few seasons. He struck out seven, walked three and allowed just two runs on five hits in six innings.
Offensively, the Tar Heels battled against UCLA's nearly untouchable bullpen, loading the bases against unflappable reliever David Berg in the ninth inning. But the Heels were unable to piece together a monumental comeback, Berg slamming the door shut as he has so many times this season.
North Carolina, which spent much of the regular season ranked No. 1 in the Perfect Game College Top 25, heads home just short of a national title.
UCLA, though, has some unfinished business, thanks in part to Grant Watson.
CWS snapshot: North Carolina-UCLA
Player of the game: LHP Grant Watson, UCLA -- Watson hadn't started since the early part of June against San Diego in the Los Angeles Regional, but he made the most of his important start in the College World Series, propelling the Bruins to the national title series with a stellar performance. Watson struck out three, walked one and allowed just four hits in six shutout innings. He threw 69 pitches, 49 for strikes.
Turning point: With North Carolina possessing one of the nation's elite offensive lineups, no lead is ever safe, especially if you're only up 2-0 heading into the bottom of the seventh inning. But the Bruins added two very important insurance runs in the seventh inning when shortstop Pat Valaika roped a two-RBI double down the left-field line to extend the UCLA lead to 4-0 over the Tar Heels. From that point on, and despite a fierce North Carolina threat in the ninth, there was no doubt UCLA was in control of this contest.
What they said: "It was our style of baseball. What can you say? It was pitching, solid defense, opportunistic, offense. I thought we had better at-bats tonight. I really did. We had a few more walks. 0-2 to walk. We used the middle of the field better, and I think that we're capable offensively. I've said that all along. We've got good offensive players. They're just as good as any part of our game. And we do feel that way. I know that if you look at the scores, you probably won't write it up that way, but there's a lot of faith and trust in our players. And so it was a great evening for us because our style of game." -- UCLA head coach John Savage
What's next: With the win over the Tar Heels, the Bruins advance to the CWS Championship Series to face equally red-hot Mississippi State. The Bruins are no stranger to the national title series. Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer led the Bruins into the title series to face South Carolina back in 2010. Interestingly, both the Bruins and Bulldogs are aiming for their first national title. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels end the season on a high note despite not reaching the title series. UNC spent much of the year ranked No.1 nationally, while also ending the year with a 59-12 overall record.