Heading into the 2010 season, UCLA had never won a game at the College World Series. Now they are headed to the Championship Series for the second time in the last four years.
Grant Watson continued the Bruins' phenomenal pitching in Omaha and was backed up by the ever-dependable UCLA bullpen to take down North Carolina, 4-1, on Friday night as the boys from Westwood won their bracket to advance to the Championship Series, where they will play Mississippi St.
UCLA is now a perfect 8-0 in the postseason and they can't be accused of feasting on easy competition either, having gone 4-0 against the No. 1, 4 and 5 national seeds in their run to the Championship Series. Led by a pitching staff that has limited opponents to just three runs in Omaha, the fewest ever in a team's first three College World Series games since going to metal bats, UCLA is now just two wins away from capturing their first national title.
There was concern about how Watson would fare after a 19-day break since his last appearance, but he was marvelous, limiting the nation's second-ranked offense to four hits in six shutout innings. The bullpen took over from there, with James Kaprielian and Zack Weiss each working easy innings and while David Berg made things nervy in the ninth, he was able to wrap up the UCLA win.
The staff was helped by the Bruins' four runs, which qualifies as an offensive outburst for this team. It marked the most runs UCLA has scored in nine innings since the Regionals, and it was led by Pat Valaika, whose two-run double marked just the second extra base hit of the College World Series for the Bruins. But he got help from Kevin Williams, who had two hits and drove in a run, and Pat Gallagher who had two hits of his own.
The Bruins wanted to get to Kent Emanuel early, with the UNC ace having failed to make it out of the third inning in his last two starts and while they couldn't do it in the first, they got on the scoreboard in the second. Gallagher and Williams singled with one out to put men on the corners before Cody Regis, playing in his third College World Series, singled home the first run of the game for a 1-0 lead.
Armed with a lead, Watson kept ticking along. The only time he ran into trouble was in the fourth, when two Tar Heels reached with one out, but he got some help from his defense and the umpire when a 6-4-3 double play ended the inning despite replays showing the man at first was safe.
It looked like Watson may have had to make that one-run lead stand up because the UCLA offense was MIA, but UNC made an error to start the sixth and, as is their wont, the Bruins took advantage of a mistake. After Filia reached, Valaika bunted him to second before a Gallagher base hit put men on the corners. That brought Williams to the plate, who looked dead and buried after falling behind 0-2, but the junior came through with a liner up the middle to score Filia for a 2-0 UCLA lead.
A leadoff single in the seventh ended Watson's day and brought Kaprielian to the mound. The freshman was sensational in his first College World Series appearance on Sunday and was just as good against the Tar Heels, striking out a pair.
UCLA wasn't content with a third 2-1 win in Omaha, though, and in the bottom half of the inning they added to their lead. Walks by Brian Carroll and Filia put two on for Valaika, who yanked a ball down the left field line. Carroll and Filia came around to score on the double and the Bruins had themselves a 4-0 lead.
Weiss' easy eighth inning brought Berg to the mound in the ninth, but because this UCLA never makes anything easy, their All-American closer ran into a bit of trouble. Two singles and a walk loaded the bases with nobody out for the No. 1 national seed. A fielder's choice got Berg his first out, but it also plated a run and while Berg followed with a strikeout, another walk loaded the bases again. That brought the go-ahead run to the plate, but Berg induced a fly out to center and when Carroll squeezed it, UCLA was Championship Series bound again.