Cal St. Fullerton was playing the best ball of any team in the country late in the season and built for the postseason. UCLA beat them.
LSU was the best team at the College World Series. UCLA beat them.
North Carolina was the No. 1 national seed and the best team in the regular season. Can UCLA beat them too?
The Bruins have swept their way through the postseason so far, cruising through the Los Angeles Regional, the Fullerton Super Regional and the first two games of the College World Series with a perfect 7-0 record. They have defeated two of the best teams in the country, too, but a third team awaits them and if the regular season is any indication, the Tar Heels will provide the Bruins with their stiffest test yet. A win will also give them their biggest reward -- a spot in the Championship Series.
Luckily for UCLA, because they are 2-0 in the double elimination bracket and North Carolina faltered in their opener, the Bruins have two games to win one, whereas the Tar Heels have to win their third and fourth consecutive games in Omaha or they will be heading home.
UCLA has been in this position before, having won their first two games at the College World Series in 2010, and while they did test themselves by losing their next contest and sending themselves into an elimination game, they came out on top to book their place in the Championship Series.
Winning the first two games of the College World Series hasn't just put the Bruins a win away from winning their bracket, but it also earned them a couple days off and the luxury of having options with their starting pitchers are a result. They could come back to ace Adam Plutko against the Tar Heels on four days rest, which is shorter than the six days rest he and other college pitchers are accustomed to, but hardly an abuse of the player. But normal No. 3 starter Grant Watson is another possibility, and the more likely one at that.
When UCLA won their first two games in 2010, John Savage could have tapped Trevor Bauer to pitch again, but he stuck with his rotation and gave Rob Ramussen the nod. It didn't turn out as the Bruins have hoped, with Rasmussen allowing three runs in 4.1 innings to take the loss, but it allowed Bauer to pitch on closer to regular rest in the next game and he delivered. With Savage such a proponent of routine and trying to keep things as normal as possible, it would be difficult to see him changing his mind three years later and opting for Plutko on short rest when Watson is available.
The question is whether Watson is too rested. Because the Bruins swept the Super Regionals and the elongated schedule of the College World Series, Watson hasn't pitched since June 2. He was spectacular in that start, his first career postseason start, allowing just one hit in seven shutout innings to clinch the Los Angeles Regional for UCLA, but can he do it again 19 days later?
The Tar Heels will make things tougher on Watson than San Diego did in the Regionals too. UNC was second in the nation in scoring, averaging 7.9 runs per game, and they batted .308, but they didn't do it with the long ball. They drew walks and pounded the gaps, ranking in the top 25 in the nation in doubles and triples, limiting the effect that spacious TD Ameritrade Park has on them. That was on display in their last game, when they piled on late to beat NC State 7-0 and stave off elimination for the second straight game.
North Carolina also has the advantage of being able to turn to their ace, Kent Emanuel, who went 11-4 this season, and while he is on just four days rest, he threw just 64 pitches on Sunday. But that low pitch count is also the concern with Emanuel. He was pulled after a mere 2.2 innings in UNC's College World Series opener after surrendering five runs and was beat up in his Super Regionals start too, allowing four runs on seven hits in 2.1 innings.
The much-maligned, but thus far good enough UCLA offense is facing a pitcher who has been in a two-week funk. If you have to face the No. 1 national seed's ace, that is a pretty good situation to be in, as is having two games to win one, rest and an unbelievable amount of of momentum on your side.
UCLA has beaten two of the best teams in the country and now it aims for a third. If they do it and advance to the Championship Series, it can't be argued that they didn't earn their spot to play for a national championship.