OMAHA -- UCLA continues to show that championship approach. Now it's a win away from a national title.
No matter the situation, no matter where the game, or the magnitude, the Bruins are never phased, and they just execute their style of play exceptionally well.
Very much like the 2010 CWS Championship Series, the hour or so before Monday's Game 1 bout against Mississippi State featured the Bruins taking batting practice while TD Ameritrade Park filled up, in impressive fashion I might add, with a plethora of maroon and white (garnet and black back in 2010). Perhaps some teams might be slightly intimidated by Omaha turned mini Starkville, Miss. But not the Bruins, as if anything, they continuously embrace the idea of being the team going against the ballpark favorites.
Just as quick as Mississippi State fans could start cheers of "Maroon" and "White" back and forth throughout the stadium in the minutes before the game, the Bruins silenced the Mississippi State crowd quickly in the first inning with a Pat Valaika RBI single, essentially setting the tone for the rest of the game on the way to a 3-1 win in the CWS Championship Series opener.
The book on UCLA suggests you better never fall behind. That rang true yet again.
"We've embraced that environment," UCLA coach John Savage said. "It seems like everyone has bigger crowds, LSU, North Carolina, etc. Tonight was big-time, and there were all kinds of Mississippi State people. It was great to see. But we've embraced the stadium against us philosophy, and our guys enjoy that."
The Bruins desperately wanted to get off to a hot start against the Bulldogs, and they accomplished that goal in impressive fashion. The Bruins recorded two hits in the first inning, including Pat Valaika's RBI single, giving right-handed starting pitcher Adam Plutko some cushion going into the bottom of the first inning.
Plutko, who put together yet another solid start for the blue and gold, had a clean first inning that included a 1-2-3 frame. As a matter of fact, Plutko actually retired the first nine batters of the game to springboard things the rest of the way for the Bruins.
"I felt good coming out of the bullpen. I had a really good bullpen session and was feeling confident," Plutko said. "The first time through the lineup, I wanted to attack them and see what they were about. They started to get to me late in the game though."
While Plutko gave the Bruins a boost in the early innings, the Bulldogs once again were forced to go to the bullpen early in the contest. Mississippi State started sophomore right-handed pitcher Trevor Fitts, but as with his last performance in Omaha, the Bulldogs didn't have much patience with him, and elected to go to the bullpen. Fitts allowed a run in the first inning, then allowed a hit to start the second inning. After a groundout to second base, and with the top of the UCLA order coming up, John Cohen turned the game over sweeping slider specialist Chad Girodo, who already had plenty of experience with long relief performances in this year's CWS.
Girodo, as usual, put together an impressive performance for the Bulldogs, throwing 119 pitches, striking out nine, primarily with his 75-78 slider, in 7 2/3 innings of work.
Girodo's only sign of weakness came in the fourth inning. With the Bruins clinging to a 1-0 lead over the Bulldogs, Eric Filia, who's hitting .424 in the NCAA postseason, came to the plate with a pair of runners on base. On a 3-2 count, which typically is advantageous for a guy like Girodo, Filia smacked an RBI single to right field to score two runs, giving UCLA a 3-0 lead.
Coaches leading up to this series exclaimed that a 3-0 lead by UCLA was like being down 8 or 9-0 to any other teams in college baseball, so Filia's hit provided the Bruins with some cushion.
"He threw his slider, and that's a plus pitch, and I was just really focusing on that pitch, not really focusing on any other," Filia said. "Guys were getting on base and that put some momentum into my at-bat, and certainly into that one pitch."
Though Filia's two-RBI single proved to essentially be the game clincher for the Bruins, the biggest moment of the game -- with Filia involved yet again -- came in the bottom half of the fourth inning. With UCLA clinging to that 3-0 lead, the Bulldogs loaded the bases, and the score was 3-1 after Adam Plutko, who typically has pinpoint command, walked a run home. Mississippi State designated hitter Trey Porter, who has smashed some balls in the CWS, laced a first-pitch fastball to deep right field. However, Filia was able to reach up and make a terrific grab to end the threat.
Mississippi State was never again able to piece together that type of threat.
"You know, we have bases loaded and our guy hammers that ball into right field, just squaring it up, hitting a line drive as hard as you can, and you feel like you've put yourself in position to win a game," MSU head coach John Cohen said. "They hit balls into parts of the field that had grass, and most of our balls found gloves today. The error they had didn't cost them. The error we had cost us."
Interestingly, after the game, UCLA coach John Savage discussed how Adam Plutko wasn't as sharp as usual, but Plutko still had an impressive performance against the Bulldogs, especially when facing Padres first-round pick and outfielder Hunter Renfroe.
In addition to the way he started the game, Plutko struck out two, walked one and allowed just one run on four hits in six innings of work. And against Renfroe? All Plutko did there was recorded a couple of strikeouts on 90 mph fastballs, while also inducing a pop up to shortstop Pat Valaika for the first out of the sixth inning. Renfroe and red-hot MSU first baseman Wes Rea went a combined 0-for-5 against Plutko, the right-hander working 88-90 with his fastball, along with a good 80-82 changeup, which he used quite frequently.
"He made a couple of mistakes in the inning [fourth] when he gave up a run. He walked a guy, and I mean, when's the last time he has walked a run in? Probably never," Savage said. "But to his credit, he has experience and he fought back with some zeroes. We have high standards, though, and while I was probably a little hard on him, he knows he can pitch better."
With Plutko at 93 pitches through six innings, the Bruins pieced things together from a bullpen standpoint the final three frames, using freshman right-handed pitcher James Kaprielian and veteran righty Zack Weiss, who was 92-94 out of the pen.
Weiss hit Mississippi State's Renfroe with one out in the eighth inning on a scary play that almost resulted in Renfroe getting hit in the face. Seizing the moment, the Bruins decided to finish out the game with reliable right-handed closer David Berg.
Berg allowed a pair of one-out singles in the ninth inning, but much like the eighth inning, and in the Bruins' last game against North Carolina, the righty, who broke the NCAA's single-season record for saves with his 24th, closed out the contest without too much trouble.
"That was a hard-fought, tight game, and a lot of situations could have one either way," Savage said. "Mississippi State is dangerous and I think it proved it tonight. This was one game, and I told the team there's not much to get excited about."
When the Bruins enter TD Ameritrade Park on Tuesday, they'll have a chance to capture the program's first national title. They've been in this situation before in recent years, against South Carolina, and things didn't turn out too well, getting swept 2-0 in the series against the Gamecocks.
But this Bruins team is ready to win a national title. Even if it means winning it in front of a predominantly maroon and white crowd.
At this point, it'd be fitting end to a special season.
CWS Snapshot: UCLA vs. Mississippi State
Player of the game: OF Eric Filia, UCLA -- Though Bruins right-handed pitcher Adam Plutko put together an impressive start against Mississippi State, Filia had a terrific day at the plate and in the field. At the plate, Filia went 2-for-3 with two RBIs, including a two-RBI single in the fourth inning on a 3-2 count to extend the Bruins' lead to 3-0, and to give the UCLA pitching staff some cushion. In the field, Filia made his statement in the fourth inning. With bases loaded and two outs, red-hot Mississippi State designated hitter Trey Porter hit a rocket into right field, but Filia reached up and made a terrific grab to end the inning after the Bulldogs had already gotten a right across.
Turning point: With the Bruins up 1-0 heading into the fourth inning, they were looking to add some support for the pitching staff after already getting into the Mississippi State bullpen and left-handed pitcher Chad Girodo. On a 3-2 count, outfielder Eric Filia, who had a very productive day at the plate, smacked a two-RBI single to right field to extend UCLA's lead to 3-0. The Bruins never looked back.
What they said: "Hard fought game, tight game, lot of situations that could have gone either way. We pitched out of some problems. I thought Adam was fairly sharp. He competed. I thought he was sharp early, ran into trouble in the fourth inning. I thought that was a good one. That could have been more. Mississippi State is dangerous, and I think they proved that to us tonight. One game, I told the team that there's not much to get excited about." -- UCLA coach John Savage
What's next: With the win over Mississippi State, the Bruins are a win away from capturing the baseball program's first national title. UCLA will send right-handed pitcher Nick Vander Tuig to the mound against the Bulldogs in Game 2. In his last start, Vander Tuig struck out six, walked no one and allowed just a run on four hits in seven innings against North Carolina State. Meanwhile, for the Bulldogs, coach John Cohen now has a tough decision to make. Bring back right-handed pitcher Kendall Graveman on short rest, or take a chance with a starting pitcher who has yet to appear in the College World Series? It's win or go home for the Bulldogs on Tuesday.