LOS ANGELES--With one game left in the regular season, the UCLA baseball team finds itself in an eerily similar situation to where they were last year at this time: Right in the thick of the Pac-12 title race.
The way they have gotten there, however, is quite a bit different.
The Bruins are riding a hot bullpen that has helped make up for the departures of pitchers Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, who were the first and third picks in the major league baseball draft last June.
Cole and Bauer dominated games for the Bruins last season and pitched the Bruins to the Pac-12 title by winning games the final weekend at Arizona State, but with no such domination from starting pitching this year, the Bruins are relying on their bullpen.
Starter Brian Vander Tuig fell behind 4-0 to USC and left the game trailing 4-3, but the bullpen held serve for the most part and UCLA won, 6-5. On Friday night, starter Adam Plutko labored through his six innings with five walks and made 105 pitches while continually pitching out of trouble, but David Berg, Ryan Deeter and Scott Griggs came to the rescue as they have so often this season.
In two games against USC, that seventh-eighth-ninth inning trio has given up one run on three hits with eight strikeouts and two walks in six innings. Their ability to close out games has been a major factor in UCLA winning 40-plus games for only the eighth time in school history.
"It’s kind of a whole different philosophy and it seems to be working up to now," coach John Savage said. "With Cole and Bauer, they would go eight or nine. Now we only need five or six out of our starters and then we go to that Berg, Deeter and Griggs combination and our bullpen has been our strength."
It's a good thing, because Savage has called upon his bullpen often. Last year UCLA starters threw 15 complete games--10 by Bauer--but this year they have only one and that was in early March. Berg, the freshman seventh-inning specialist, has set a school record with 42 appearances and has appeared in the last 17 consecutive games.
Deeter, the setup man, and Griggs, the closer, have 33 appearances each and Grant Watson, the Tuesday starter who pitches in relief on weekends, has 32.
"It's a lot different than it was last year, but we've kind of made it our mission to find a way," said Griggs, who notched his school-record 15th save Friday as the Bruins defeated USC for the 17th time in the last 22 meetings. "We know we don't have Gerrit and Trevor, but we have a lot of trust in all of the pitchers on the staff. It's a lot of fun for us to go in a try to close out the games."
UCLA's bullpen is 14-5 with a 2.26 ERA and had held opponents to a .205 batting average against. Berg, a walk-on who received no scholarship offers, leads the Pac-12 with a .176 opponents batting average. Griggs has 59 strikeouts in 34 1/3 innings. Deeter has given up only two earned runs in 26 innings.
"We're very, very confident once we get into the fifth or sixth inning that our bullpen can get the job done," Deeter said. "We love to have the ball turned over to us. We don't mind if the starters go longer, but we know what are roles are and stick with our routine."
Those roles are going to become even more important now that the postseason is around the corner. The Bruins are virtually assured of earning a regional hosting bid for the NCAA tournament and another win against the Trojans would probably lock up a top-eight national seeding, meaning the Bruins would stay at home for a Super Regional should they advance that far.
Those games are often dogfights and that come down to the bullpen and considering UCLA has gone 19-6 in games decided by three runs or fewer, the Bruins are certainly battle tested.
"We look at it as the way we play Bruin baseball this year," Savage said. "So far it's been good enough. We've played a lot of close games this year and that’s a good thing and a little bit of a scary thing but it's been working so far."