"Good pitching beats good hitting," the old saying goes.
UCLA will hope to prove that true when they take on Mississippi St. in the College World Series Finals. Armed with excellent pitching, spectacular defense and an offense that, at their best, does just enough, the Bruins' record-setting run prevention will have to keep humming along if they are to deny the Bulldogs their first ever national championship and claim UCLA's first in baseball.
After the Bruins limited LSU, NC State and North Carolina to just three runs in their first three College World Series games, a new low in the metal bat era, there is reason to think they could do it too. Adam Plutko, Nick Vander Tuig and Grant Watson compiled a combined 0.90 ERA in their three starts and the only reliever to be nicked for a run was Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year David Berg, who can set a NCAA record for single-season saves with one more.
With a 37-1 record when holding its opponents to three runs or fewer, the formula is pretty simple for UCLA -- pitch, play defense and grab that national championship trophy.
But holding Mississippi St. down will be as much of a challenge as any they have had this postseason. The Bulldogs have five batters hitting over .300, including Hunter Renfroe, who is batting .355 with 16 home runs. One of those came at TD Ameritrade Park, where the ball doesn't travel and it takes a rocket to get the ball out. Renfroe is as good of a hitter as the Bruins have faced this season and he will get chances with runners on base.
Adam Frazier is hitting .358 with a team-leading 20 doubles, while Alex Dertz added 53 walks to a .320 average, giving Renfroe two table setters in front of him and a vicious top three of the Bulldogs order for the Bruins to deal with.
The Bruins will have to slow the Bulldogs down too, because Mississippi St. may not pitch like UCLA, but the can get outs. They have given up three runs per game in Omaha, which is almost identical to what the Bruins have averaged at the College World Series, but they do it uniquely.
Instead of leaning on outstanding starting pitching, as the Bruins do, the Bulldogs just try to get by with their starters long enough to turn the ball over to their bullpen. And for them, long enough can mean the fourth or fifth inning.
Kendall Graveman has been the Mississippi St. workhorse in Omaha, working 4.2 innings in each of his two starts, and that is the norm with the Bulldogs. Trevor Fitts will start for the Bulldogs in Game 1 and he hasn't made it out of the third inning in any of his three postseason starts. That's not a knock on Fitts ether, just the way Mississippi St. handles their pitching.
With a bullpen anchored by Jonathan Holder, that makes sense, too. If Berg isn't the best closer in the country, Holder is and he has guys like Ross Mitchell and Chad Girodo to get the ball from the starters, through the middle innings, and late into the game when Mississippi St. can use Holder or one of his set-up men.
Another three-run game against the Bulldogs looks likely. it's what they give up and it's what the Bruins score. More than likely, an error will help fuel those UCLA runs, but the number is the same and it comes down to whether the Bruins' pitching and defense will hold up.
Plutko, Vander Tuig, Watson.
Berg, Weiss, Kaprielian.
The trio of UCLA starters and their excellent three-man bullpen have gotten the job done so far and at a record-setting level. They have done it with the backing of Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Pat Valaika, the tremendous Kevin Kramer and an outfield headed by the rangy Brian Carroll.
UCLA has good pitching and they have great defense behind them. Does that beat good hitting?
If it does, the Bruins will claim their first national title.