Daily dose of Berg provides relief for UCLA

David Berg has more pitching appearances in one season than any other Bruin in any season before him. Last year at this time Berg had no scholarship offers. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US Presswire

LOS ANGELES -- A year ago at this time, David Berg had no idea if or when he would ever appear in a Division I college baseball game. Now he's in line to appear in more of them than any pitcher ever has in one season.

Berg, a freshman walk-on, has pitched in 47 games for the Bruins this season -- tied for the second most appearances by a pitcher in Division I history and four behind the all-time record set by Connor Falkenbach of Florida in 2005.

Just as the Minnesota Twins had "Everyday Eddie" with Eddie Guardado, the Bruins have Daily Dave. He has become a valuable cog in a bullpen that has played a significant role in getting UCLA to the College World Series for the second time in three seasons. UCLA (47-14) opens play against Stony Brook on Friday at 2 p.m. PT in Omaha.

And if recent history is any indication, it's almost a sure bet Berg will pitch in that game. The submarining right-hander has appeared in 21 of UCLA's last 22 games -- sitting out only Adam Plutko's two-hitter in the regional opener.

During that stretch, he has pitched 31 innings with a 1.45 ERA and given up only 21 hits and three walks while striking out 34. Named a freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball, Berg has been even better in the postseason having given up no runs and four hits with 10 strikeouts and a walk in eight innings.

For the season, opponents are batting .172 against him -- a figure that leads all qualifying Pac-12 pitchers by 41 points -- and his 1.58 ERA leads the conference by nearly half a run.

"He's been a savior," coach John Savage said. "It’s really a credit to him and his character and his ability. He has no fear. He’ll go up against anybody anywhere and I can’t say enough about him. We would not be in the position we are without David Berg."

A year ago, it was unfathomable that the coach of a major Division I program would say those words about Berg. During his senior year at Bishop Amat High School in La Puente, Berg received a grand total of zero scholarship offers. A couple of Division III schools had expressed interest, but offered no guarantees of making the team.

He throws sidearm/submarine style and barely registers in the mid-80s with his fastball, so he doesn't exactly get scouts frothing at the mouth. The UCLA coaches noticed him getting out after out with his sinking fastball and frisbee slider while scouting other players one day and thought he might be a good fit in a pitchers' park such as Jackie Robinson Stadium. They put him on their radar and asked if he'd like to try his luck at making UCLA's team as a walk-on.

"Coming out of high school, I didn’t know where I was going to go to school," Berg said. "I was going to a D-III program where I was going to have to try out, then all of a sudden all these things started tumbling. I’m just really glad to be here and to be getting this many opportunities."

The biggest of those opportunities came last Saturday when Berg closed out a 4-1 super regional-clinching victory over Texas Christian by pitching the last three innings. He gave up two hits and struck out three and earned his first career save.

With a three-run lead in the ninth, it's a save situation and normally time for Scott Griggs, the closer who set the UCLA school record with 15 saves this season. But Savage turned to Berg for a third inning with a spot in the College World Series on the line.

"I played the hot hand, Berg," Savage said. "They weren’t picking him up, they weren’t seeing him and I didn’t want to change. I played the hot hand and David did what he needed to do."

For Berg, it was kind of a surreal moment. After completing the eighth inning of that game, he just assumed Griggs would get the call in the ninth, but Savage approached him in the dugout to get a read on his mindset.

"Coach came up to me and asked me if I wanted the ball and I said, ‘Hell yeah,’ " Berg said. "You grow up wanting the ball in big situations so when he asked me, of course I said yes. And it was awesome."

Coming in to this season, UCLA needed a switch in pitching philosophy. Rotation anchors Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, workhorses who routinely went deep into games the last three seasons, were selected No. 1 and No. 3 overall, respectively, in the major league draft last June so the bullpen had to take on a much more significant role this season.

Discovering Berg to fill one of the spots in that bullpen has been a coup for UCLA. Berg switched to a submarine delivery in high school because he didn't think he threw hard enough to earn a Division I scholarship and wanted another way to stand out. That switch not only helped him get on a Division I team, but gave his arm the resiliency to pitch almost every game. He had a string of appearances in 18 consecutive games going into the playoffs and had already set the school record for appearances by then.

"It’s something different than a lot of other people," he said. "It doesn’t take as much wear and tear as the big power arms because I don’t throw as hard. It allows me to be able to go every day and as long as I keep it healthy, it’s not much of a problem."

His sinking fastball and sidearm delivery are even more effective for the Bruins because he usually follows starters Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig, power arms who are extreme fly-ball pitchers. Against Berg, many batters either swing and miss or pound the ball into the ground for routine outs.

"This guy is a sinker, slider guy and he’s been terrific," Savage said. "What can you say? He puts up that zero in the seventh."

And last Saturday, he put up zeroes in the eighth and ninth as well and as a result, UCLA is headed to college baseball's grandest stage. Not bad for a kid who a year ago didn't know if he'd be playing college baseball on any stage.

"Have I ever dreamed of it? Yes," Berg said. "But did I ever think it would be a reality? No way. It’s amazing. It still hasn’t hit me yet. I heard someone say Omaha in the locker room and I was like, ‘Whoa.’ "