UCLA used tremendous pitching and effective small ball to clinch its first College World Series title. [Stephen Dunn/Getty Images]
Prior to Tuesday night, UCLA athletics had won a record 108 NCAA championships, but had never won one in baseball. That changed with UCLA's 8-0 win over Mississippi State in the second and final game of the this year's College World Series in Omaha, which clinched the NCAA giant's first baseball championship and 109th overall.
As it had throughout both the tournament and the season, UCLA won Tuesday night with pitching and relentless, and nearly flawless, fundamental play. UCLA may have scored eight runs on 12 hits, but it had as many infield hits as extra-base knocks (two each), and one of which was a result of a hustle play by designated hitter Kevin Williams.
That fifth inning also happened to be the only inning in which UCLA put a man on base and failed to score, a stark contrast to Mississippi State, which didn't manage a single hit with runner in scoring position in the two-games of the best-two-out-of-three final.
UCLA starter Nick Vander Tuig, who was selected in the sixth round of the Rule 4 draft by the San Francisco Giants earlier this month, held Mississippi State scoreless for eight innings, allowing just five hits, all singles, and a walk while striking out six. That performance extended and completed the dominance of UCLA pitching in the four-round world series, which saw them allow four runs in five games and not once allow more than one run in a game, something no team had ever done before in the College World Series, for a team ERA of 0.80 across their five world series games.
Vander Tuig, who threw seven strong innings in UCLA's defeat of North Carolina State in the second round of the world series, displayed excellent command of three pitches, his only walk coming in the seventh inning, expertly featured his curve and changeup, and only once allowed two hits in an inning or a man to third base. Both of those situations arose in the fifth inning, but Vander Tuig escaped that jam by striking out the top two men in the Mississippi State order, including leadoff man Adam Frazier, a fellow sixth-round pick (by the Pirates).
All of that said, Vander Tuig got a big assist from Omaha's TD Ameritrade Park, which became the home of the College World Series in 2011 and has played a significant role in suppressing run scoring in the event ever since. In the 14 world series games played at the ballpark this year, there were a total of just three home runs, and there were at least three instances in Tuesday night's game in which a Mississippi State player appeared to have hit the ball out only to watch it settle into an outfielder's glove shy of the warning track.
The very first batter of the game, Frazier, appeared to get all of a Vander Tuig pitch only to make the first of eight straight MSU outs to start the game. In the fourth inning, 272 pound first baseman Wes Rea hit what looked like a game-tying three-run home run that failed to reach the warning track in left, and in the eighth, Mississippi State's five-tool star Hunter Renfroe, whom the Padres made the 13th overall pick in this year's draft, hit what seemed like a no-doubt two-run shot to left that also failed to make get the left-fielder's spikes dirty. Add those three shots up and Mississippi State, which has never won an NCAA title in any sport, could have tied the game up at 6-6 in the eighth on Renfroe's shot. Instead, this game felt over after four innings when UCLA expanded its lead to 5-0.
The NCAA has to do something about how their new ballpark plays, and the most obvious move is to bring in the fences, which are 335 feet down the lines and 375 feet in the power alleys. Those aren't absurd dimensions but with the wind regularly blowing in, as it was Tuesday night, those dimensions play far larger.
Don't take my word for it. During Tuesday night's broadcast, ESPN"s Orel Hershiser said, "I'm having trouble thinking of a yard that plays bigger than this ever, that I've ever played in or seen." Hershiser offered up Candlestick Park "with the wind barreling in" as the closest comparison and summed up the issue neatly by saying that if a stud like Renfroe could hit a ball on the screws to his pull field and still fly out short of the warning track, something had to be done to fix how the ballpark played.
UCLA's small-ball approach was clearly better fit for the ballpark (in addition to the two infield hits, two of their runs scored on sac flies and another on a squeeze bunt that was one of three sacrifice bunts by the Bruins in the game, and three UCLA hitters were hit by pitches they made no effort to avoid, one of which was nearly a strike, with two of those men subsequently coming around to score). However, Mississippi State did manage to win three games in Omaha prior to facing UCLA, scoring 14 runs in those three games compared to just one run in two games in the final.
So it wasn't all the ballpark. Vander Tuig and co-ace Adam Plutko, the winner of Game 1 and an 11th round pick by the Indians, the Bruins' outstanding defense, and the relentless, fundamentally-sound play they learned from head coach John Savage and his staff were the primary reasons that UCLA finally broke it's baseball drought. They did it convincingly, becoming the third straight team to go 10-0 in the tournament (something that had never happened prior to 2011, in part because ten wins weren't required until 2003) and, again, the first not to allow multiple runs in any of their world series games.
With that, UCLA's 11 softball titles (and a twelfth prior to NCAA regulation), 11 men's basketball titles, and whopping 23 volleyball titles (19 men's and four women's, not counting three more each prior to NCAA regulation) finally have a baseball championship to keep them company.