Vander Tuig continues UCLA pitching dominance

LOS ANGELES -- If UCLA’s pitching staff was supposed to be down this season, nobody bothered to tell the Bruins pitchers.

Nick Vander Tuig flirted with a no-hitter against one of the nation's best hitting teams and turned in the second consecutive dominant outing by a UCLA starter as the Bruins trounced New Mexico, 7-1, Saturday night in the second round of the NCAA regionals at Jackie Robinson Stadium.

Vander Tuig did not allow a hit until a leadoff double in the eighth and struck out a career-high 11 with only one walk and an unearned run in eight innings for the Bruins, who will play Sunday at 7 p.m. with a chance to win the regional and advance to the Super Regionals.

UCLA (44-14), seeded No. 2 nationally, will face the winner of an elimination game between New Mexico (37-23) and Creighton (27-29). The Bluejays eliminated San Diego on Saturday. Should the Bruins advance, they will have starting pitching to thank.

Vander Tuig and Friday’s starter Adam Plutko have given up only one run and three hits in the two games of the regional and UCLA pitchers have limited New Mexico and Creighton to an .070 batting average in the two games.

“UCLA is seeded the way they are seeded because it was obvious tonight,” New Mexico coach Ray Birmingham said. “They have given up one run in two ballgames. UCLA can pitch.”

This is the type of dominant starting pitching the Bruins often got last season with Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole, but even those two, selected No. 1 and 3 in the Major League Baseball draft last year, didn’t turn in these types of outings in last year’s regional.

Bauer pitched a five-hitter with 11 strikeouts and Cole lost his start in the regional as UCLA failed to advance. With those two gone, coach John Savage has employed a different strategy with his starters this season, asking them to go only five or six before handing this over to a stellar bullpen. Things have played out differently in the postseason, however, as the bullpen has been in for only one inning in two games.

“I wouldn’t say surprised,” Savage said of his starters going deep into the last two games. “We have starters that are capable of those two outings.”

Perhaps, then, Savage has been playing possum with his starters. The Bruins had only one complete game in the regular season and a UCLA starter has gone past the seventh only twice since March. They have done it twice in two games of the regional.

Vander Tuig was up to the task Saturday. He moved his fastball around the strike zone, effectively mixed in his secondary pitches and was perfect until Cody Keefer dropped a fly ball hit against a tough sky in left field with nobody out in the fifth.

New Mexico’s Trey Porras ended the no-hit bid with a leadoff double down the left field line in the eighth, which is quite a drought for a New Mexico team that entered the game No. 4 in the nation in hitting with a .332 team batting average.

“New Mexico is one of the better hitting teams in the country and I wanted to establish my fastball,” Vander Tuig said. “I knew they were going to be aggressive so I just took advantage of their aggressiveness.”

Vander Tuig (9-3) is a converted closer who had Tommy John surgery two and a half years ago. He entered Saturday with a 4.94 ERA and had pitched past the sixth inning only three times this season. He dominated like a pro against the Lobos, however.

“That guy tonight didn’t make a mistake,” Birmingham said. “He didn’t give you a cookie any time during the at-bat. That’s what big leaguers do and he pitched like a big-leaguer tonight.”