Resurgent UCLA and NC State Square Off At College World Series While Rivals Watch

USA TODAY Sports

After decades of underachievement, UCLA and NC State have finally taken their place on college baseball's biggest stage.

In the first 60 years of the College World Series, UCLA made it to college baseball's mecca just twice. And won zero games.

Since, UCLA has been to Omaha three times in the last four years, and have registered wins in each trip. That includes a win over title favorites LSU on Sunday, which sent them to the winner's brackets where they will face a team that knows their pain of being nationally irrelevant.

NC State is in the College World Series for just the second time in their school's history and first time in 45 years. Like the Bruins, who were long overshadowed in a baseball rich region by USC and Cal St. Fullerton, the Wolfpack played second fiddle to North Carolina, South Carolina and Clemson for decades and watched from their couches as their rivals played for national titles.

But UCLA upended Cal St. Fullerton in the Super Regionals to return to Omaha and while it took until Sunday for NC State to finally get the better of North Carolina, here they stand -- best in their region, on the national stage and playing for a championship of their own.

The Bruins and Wolfpack also have another thing in common: they are flawed.

While UCLA continues to struggle for runs, NC State's rotation beyond ace Carlos Rodon can be an adventure and with Rodon spent in the Wolfpack's win over UNC, the two teams' weaknesses will go head-to-head on Tuesday night as the Bruins try to scratch out runs against Logan Jernigan.

NC State head coach Elliot Avent didn't name his starter for the game until this morning, when he opted for the sophomore right-hander Jernigan instead of the left-hander Brad Stone, who is a better match-up against the left-handed heavy UCLA lineup, but is just a freshman. That Avent had the option of Jernigan or Avent, or even Ethan Ogburn speaks to the Wolfpack's strength and weakness on the mound -- they have options and quality ones at that, but all have battled inconsistency or injury this season and has made it a toss up for Avent all season.

Jernigan went 1-0 with a 1.19 ERA this season, but appeared in just 10 games, eight starts, and has thrown just 30.1 innings this season. He's come on strong of late, including last weekend when he allowed just one run on two hits in five innings to send the Wolfpack to Omaha, but even then he got the hook after just 75 pitches. The NC State bullpen will be on call tonight, but that's just fine with them because Chris Overman and Grant Sasser give them a great one-two punch at the back end of a deep relief corps.

Whether it is Jurnigan or one of their many relievers, the UCLA offense will be tested, but so will the Wolfpack defense, and that bodes well for the Bruins. UCLA feasts on opposition errors, which was on display when LSU's two errors earned them a College World Series opening win, and the Wolfpack are hardly an elite team with the gloves. They have an outstanding outfield, but they're average at best around the infield and opposing base stealers are successful at a 80% clip. A team like UCLA that likes to be aggressive and test defenses loves to see teams like NC State in the other dugout.

UCLA knows that they will get a good start from Nick Vander Tuig. The junior had a rough outing in Omaha last year, allowing four runs in 6.1 innings, but he is 12-4 with a 2.37 ERA this season and has shown all season his growth. Whereas he struggled to get by when he didn't have his best stuff as a sophomore, something that doomed him at the College World Series, he's done an exceptional job pitching around trouble this season and spacious TD Ameritrade Park should play to his strengths now that he has stopped trying to miss bats as often as he did a year ago.

With Vander Tuig on the mound and the defense and bullpen behind him, the question is simple -- can the much maligned UCLA offense do enough to nick the inconsistent NC State rotation and shaky defense?

The 2009 season looked a lot like the decades before it, with UCLA and NC State watching the College World Series from their couches while Cal St. Fullerton and North Carolina went championship hunting. Now, each is in the winner's bracket, and with a victory tonight, either the Bruins or Wolfpack are going to be just one win away from the Championship Series.

How is that for a welcome back to Omaha for two of America's longest suffering programs?

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