All season long, UCLA has had two problems. They strand runners on base far too often and they lacked pitching depth. At the same time, their starting pitching has been phenomenal and for all the hype surrounding Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, the Bruins have gotten tremendous pitching from their freshmen to help ease some concerns about their pitching for next season. Next season was not on the Bruins' minds as they faced elimination in the Los Angeles Regional on Sunday though. Getting a pair of wins and forcing a deciding game on Monday was all they cared about and the freshmen pitchers did their jobs.
Unfortunately, the two problems that plagued the Bruins all season came back to haunt them. UCLA took down San Francisco, 4-1, in the opening game, but fell to UC Irvine in the second game, 4-3. The loss to Irvine ended their season as they lost a one-run ninth inning lead with a tired pitching staff. Of course, that came only after numerous failed opportunities to cash in runners on base.
The highlight of the day was the freshman pitching. It started with Adam Plutko, who showed no jitters whatsoever in his first postseason start. The right-hander threw 7.2 innings of one-hit ball against San Francisco, rarely finding himself in any trouble before Nick Vander Tuig entered to pick up the four-out save. Getting sensational pitching from Plutko wasn't a huge surprise though after a great season. What the Bruins got out of Zack Weiss in the second game was a little more unexpected. Weiss went a career-high eight innings and allowed three runs, exiting the game with the Bruins still in front. Vander Tuig was asked to come back again in the second game and undoubtedly not 100% after throwing earlier in the day, allowed the Anteaters to come back for the win.
While UCLA fans will certainly be encouraged about the future of the pitching staff even with Cole and Bauer leaving, they will be left to wonder "what if." What if the offense showed up for the opening game of the Regional and the Bruins didn't have to come through the loser's bracket? What if Mitchell Beacom were healthy and the bullpen had another arm to go to? What if the ball went a little further, a little more to the left or just a break went their way? What if is all the Bruins have left though because their 2011 season is over.
UCLA got off to a quick start in the first game of the day, scoring first in the second inning. Trevor Brown singled and after Steve Rodriguez bunted him over to second, Pat Valaika laced a RBI single to left field. The second inning brought two more runs as Jeff Gelalich reached on a two-base error and Dean Espy singled him home. Cody Regis added a double that scored Espy and the Bruins owned a 3-0 lead after two innings.
A little bit of insurance never hurts and UCLA got that in the seventh. Beau Amaral was hit by a pitch with two outs and Gelalich followed with a double down the left field line. Amaral flew around the bases, coming all the way around from first to score on the double to put the Bruins up 4-0.
The offense was chipping away for runs here and there, but it was more than enough for Plutko. With two outs in the eighth inning, only two Dons had reached base all game. A walk made it two men on, then an error by Espy allowed the inning to continue. That error came back to haunt the Bruins because it forced Vander Tuig to enter the game. Had Espy made the play, Plutko might have been able to go out and finish the game in the ninth, leaving a fresh Vander Tuig for the evening.
Instead, Vander Tuig had to come in and he got out of the eighth inning on just one pitch. The ninth inning did not go as smoothly, but the freshman was able to seal up the win. A single, hit by pitch and a couple ground outs scored one, but it wasn't nearly enough and UCLA lived to play one more game.
That next game started fantastically for the Bruins thanks to Gelalich. The sophomore jumped on a first-pitch fastball and launched it out to right center for a solo home run that put UCLA up 1-0. A two-out double by Cody Keefer and intentional walk to Regis put two men on, but the Bruins stranded them with a three-pitch strikeout.
The second inning saw the Bruins draw a two-out walk and single, but once again both runners were stranded. The third inning went the same way with a walk and single, but again they were left on base.
Even in the fourth inning when the Bruins scored, they left men on. Tyler Heineman worked a fantastic full count walk after fouling off several pitches and after a one-out single by Amaral, the Bruins had men at the corners. Gelalich followed with a grounder to second that looked like it might be an inning-ending double play, but Gelalich beat the throw at first and Heineman came in to score for a 2-0 lead. After a steal of second by Gelalich, Espy walked, but both were left on base.
It took until the fifth inning, but UCLA finally got the two-out hit they needed. Regis started the inning with a single and proceeded to steal second. After a pair of ground outs, Heineman came through with the key two-out hit. A single to right scored Regis and the Bruins had stretched their lead to 3-0.
Weiss may have kept the Anteaters off of the board through four innings, but he gave up hits and walks so it was hardly the cleanest of four scoreless innings. In the fifth inning, he got hit again and this time for runs. Consecutive one-out double scored Irvine's first run of the game then a hit by pitch put two men on base. After getting the second out of the inning, Weiss gave up a single that scored another run and the UCLA lead was cut to one at 3-2. With the Anteaters' top hitter at the plate and tying run at second, Weiss came up huge, getting ahead in the count 2-0 before getting an inning-ending groundout.
The Bruins had an opportunity to add to their lead in the sixth when Chris Giovinazzo started the frame with a double, but he never even made it to third base. Keefer started the next inning with a single and later stole second, but he too was stranded on base.
The eighth inning brought another opportunity, but this time mother nature did the damage. UCLA loaded up the bases with two outs and Keefer at the plate. For several innings there had been a light mist coming down, but in the eight it intensified just a little and that made all the difference. Keefer drove a pitch to dead center field, but the heavy air knocked the ball down at the warning track where it was caught just a few feet from a grand slam.
It looked like Weiss was tiring in the fifth inning, but he only got stronger after that. The eighth inning was his best so he went back to the mound in the ninth, but after walking the lead off man, Weiss' day was done. He had thrown 115 pitches, but without much to go to in the bullpen, head coach John Savage had to go back to Vander Tuig. Throwing for the second time in the day, Vander Tuig struggled. He got ahead to the first batter he faced 0-2, but didn't have the gas to finish him and the Anteaters got a double down the left field line. That scored the tying run and after a bunt single, the winning run was at third with none out. Vander Tuig got two strikes on the next batter too and had him in front of an outside fastball, but the batter was able to reach out and poke a ball down the right field line to score the game winning and Regional winning run for Irvine.
The Bruins' season came to an end in a painfully similar matter to the 2010 season, with a walk off hit to right field. Keefer, Amaral, Gelalich and Bauer were all named to the All-Regional team, but that will do little to console them. UCLA's season finished with a 35-24 record and Pac-10 champions, but several steps short of their ultimate goal.