For the first time all game, and perhaps all postseason, UCLA's Adam Plutko was on the ropes.
It was the fourth inning of the first game of the College World Series finals, and Mississippi State was threatening UCLA's 3-0 lead. Coming into the fourth, Plutko had retired the first 10 Bulldogs in order, barely breaking a sweat in the humid Omaha night at TD Ameritrade Park. But a single by Bulldogs third baseman Alex Detz broke up the perfect game, and three batters later, the bases were loaded with two outs. Plukto battled with Bulldogs centerfielder C.T. Bradford for eight pitches before surrendering an RBI walk on a 3-2 count. Two pitches later, designated hitter Trey Porter lashed a line drive to right field, a ball that had "bases-clearing double" written all over it. Mississippi State, it seemed, had finally done what no team in the CWS had yet been able to do: Solve UCLA's ace.
Only Porter's smash never found the ground. Bruins rightfielder Eric Filia had read the ball perfectly off the bat, and settled under it for the third out. Plutko and UCLA had avoided catastrophe. And though they didn't know it, Mississippi State had seen their best chance against Plutko disappear.
"This place was loud and rocking," Plutko told ESPN's Jessica Mendoza after the game. "I had to make some pitches and get myself out of that situation. I went to my focal point out there, the UCLA Bruins sign in the bullpen, looked at it, took a deep breath, and got back out there."
That fourth inning aside, Plutko stymied the Bulldogs like he has every other team in the playoffs, limiting them to one run on four hits in six-plus innings as the Bruins won Game 1 of the final, 3-1. The victory leaves UCLA just one win away from its first NCAA baseball title in school history.
"We hung in there, put up some difficult zeroes," UCLA head coach John Savage said. "We dodged some bullets, there's no doubt about it."
It was a typical UCLA performance: Not much on offense, but dominant on the mound with stellar defense preserving an early lead. Plutko's performance was especially impressive against a Bulldogs offense that came into Monday's game hitting .297 in the CWS and featured Hunter Renfroe, the No. 13 overall pick in the 2013 MLB draft. Plutko handled Renfroe with ease, striking him out twice and getting him to fly out in their three meetings.
All night, Mississippi State's offense couldn't find the big hit when needed. In the fifth, leftfielder Demarcus Henderson reached on an error by Plutko, then advanced to second on a balk, only to be stranded there. In the seventh, the Bulldogs put the first two runners on, only to follow up with a double play and a groundout. The eighth started optimistically, as Renfroe took a pitch off the shoulder with one out. But UCLA head coach John Savage went to shutdown closer David Berg, who got second baseman Brett Pirtle to ground into a double play to finish the inning.
"Our kids kept fighting, fighting, fighting," Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. "We had some sequences where we had opportunities, and it was frustrating. They hit balls to spots in the field that found grass, and we hit balls that found gloves."
The ninth provided one last near-rally for the Bulldogs. With Berg still on the mound, bulky first baseman Wes Rea grounded out to third, but Bradford and pinch-hitter Sam Frost followed with singles to put two on with one out. Berg bore down, though, getting catcher Nick Ammirati to fly out to left-center and pinch-hitter Jacob Robson to chop back to the mound for the final out. With that, Berg set the NCAA record for saves in a single season with 24.
UCLA, meanwhile, capitalized on its chances. The Bruins wasted no time getting on the board in the first inning, scraping together a run as third baseman Kevin Kramer reached first when a third strike got away from Ammirati. Filia followed with a double — UCLA's only extra-base hit of the day — and shortstop Pat Valaika drove in Kramer with a looping single to left field. UCLA struck again in the fourth, plating two runs on a single by Filia.
"We're not really going to get the home run or stuff like that, we're just trying to get the next guy up, try to execute," Filia said. "We're trying to get quality at-bats and work the pitching."
After the fourth, though, Mississippi State's Chad Girodo was able to shut down the Bruins' offense. Coming out of the bullpen in the second inning to replace nominal starter Trevor Fitts, as has been the Bulldogs' strategy all season, Girodo was shaky in his first two innings and change. But after the fourth, Girodo clamped down on UCLA, allowing just two baserunners in the game's final five innings on two walks, striking out five. Overall, Girodo struck out nine in 7 1/3 innings with three hits and two unearned runs allowed.
The day belonged to Plutko, however. He stayed high in the zone with his fastball, which topped out at 89 mph but managed to frustrate Mississippi State's hitters, then mixed in his curveball for a change of pace. Though he struck out only two, he kept the Bulldogs off-balance through his six innings.
"He didn't have anything overpowering and was leaving it up, and we just did too much," Pirtle said. "We gave them easy outs."
He got good help from his defense as well, with Filia producing not only an easy catch of Porter's liner in the fourth, but also a leaping grab of a screaming line drive off the bat of Ammirati in the fifth.
"I really just saw how big a swing [Ammirati] had," Filia said. "I was playing him deep, got a good read off it, saw how much space I had until the wall, jumped up and got it."
Facing a crowd overwhelmingly decked out in Mississippi State maroon and a field overrun with gnats at the game's start, Plutko gave UCLA exactly the start it needed.
"I was feeling good. I was in a groove early and tried to stay in that the whole time," Plutko said. Though UCLA's starter for Game 2 hasn't been announced, the likely choice will be Nick Vander Tuig. He has paired with Plutko to give the Bruins an imposing 1-2 at the top of the rotation. Mississippi State has to hope that, unlike Game 1, it can take out Vander Tuig where it couldn't figure out Plutko.