OMAHA, Neb. — Never has a team swinging metal bats produced so few runs through two College World Series games yet found itself in such an enviable position.
These UCLA Bruins are proving that in this day and age of college baseball, pitching and defense, more than ever, can be a winning formula.
It showed again Tuesday night in the Bruins’ 2-1 victory over North Carolina State. That, by the way, was the same score of UCLA’s Sunday night win over LSU.
“It’s Bruin baseball,” coach John Savage said. “Sometimes it’s grueling, and it’s tough to watch, I’m sure. Our kids hung in there. We were opportunistic. It’s like walking a tight rope, that’s for sure.”
The Bruins’ four runs so far are the fewest by a team that won its first two games in Omaha in the metal-bat era. The previous record was six, by Eastern Michigan in 1976 and South Carolina in 1977.
Arizona State scored three runs while winning its first two games in 1972, but that was in the days of wood bats. Metal was introduced in 1974.
UCLA (46-17) scored its runs against NC State (50-15) in the fifth inning using two walks, two singles and a wild pitch.
“It’s more a mentality for us, taking advantage of opportunities,” said Kevin Kramer, who hit the tying single. “We’re not going to put up any gaudy numbers. It does get a little frustrating at times, but when you have great pitchers like this, we know we can put up a couple of runs and play defense because we know these guys will take us a long way.”
Offense has been at a premium throughout college baseball since the current bat standards went into effect in 2011. Only two home runs have been hit in the first eight CWS games.
Some people are looking for ways to goose the numbers. Among the ideas are moving in fences and going to the minor-league professional ball, which is believed to produce greater flight than the raised-seam college ball.
That argument is for another day, though.
Right now, UCLA isn’t complaining. The Bruins showed up at the CWS with a .251 batting average that ranked 253rd out of 296 Division I teams. After two games here, the average has dropped to .249.
But here they are, one victory away from next week’s best-of-three finals. The Wolfpack will play an elimination game against North Carolina on Thursday. The winner of that game will face UCLA on Friday. The Bruins would have to lose Friday and again Saturday to not make it to the finals that start next Monday.
The big pitching effort against the Wolfpack came from Nick Vander Tuig, who allowed four hits over seven-plus innings. He also tagged out a runner at the plate to keep the Wolfpack from adding to a 1-0 lead in the third inning.
“UCLA’s going to give you absolutely nothing, and they didn’t,” Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent said. “We fought hard. We played hard. We played pretty well. Their pitcher kept hitting the spots.”
Vander Tuig (13-4) retired 13 of 14 batters heading into the eighth inning. David Berg came on with a runner on base in the eighth and earned his NCAA record-tying 23rd save, but not before Trea Turner launched a deep fly that left fielder Christoph Bono had to go to the warning track to catch over his right shoulder.
“That’s about as good as I can hit a ball right now,” Turner said. “Unfortunately, it fell a few feet short. That could have been the difference in the game.”
Kramer’s tying hit for UCLA improved him to 4 for 10 with 13 RBIs when the bases are loaded. With the bases still loaded in the fifth, a changeup by NC State reliever Grant Sassaer bounced away from catcher Brent Austin, and Brenton Allen scored from third to put UCLA up 2-1.
On Sunday against LSU, the Bruins scored on an error and a sacrifice fly.
Who knows how the Bruins will manufacture runs the rest of the way.
“I think to come out of the West, you have to be very detailed,” Savage said. “You have to really pitch. You have to play a very good defense, and you’ve got to execute on offense. I know you look at .250 and the home runs and the run production. But it’s not all about that a lot of times.”