June 25, 2013 11:04:34 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
OMAHA, Neb. -- The UCLA baseball team made the most of its opportunities Monday night.
As a result, Mississippi State University will have to find a way to create more chances for itself and to make its breaks if it wants to win its first national championship.
"I thought some things didn't go our way tonight, but that's how things work in this game," MSU coach John Cohen said Monday following a 3-1 loss in game one of the College World Series Finals at TD Ameritrade Park. "First run of the game scores on a swing and miss on a ball that hits us in the mask. There's no way to block that. I wish he hadn't swung on that."
Cohen said MSU (51-19) had "bad things happen" to it on a night when it surrendered only one earned run. He said "the game beat" his Bulldogs on many of their 13 flyball outs.
UCLA (48-17) used what coach John Savage called "the Bruin way" to move one victory away from its first national title. The most important part of the plan involved junior right-hander Adam Plutko (10-3) pitching to the spacious confines of TD Ameritrade Park and allowing one run on four hits in six-plus innings. James Kaprielian, Zack Weiss, and David Berg combined to limit MSU to two hits and one walk in the final three innings. Berg allowed both hits and worked out of a jam with two runners on in the bottom of the ninth inning to record his NCAA-record 24th save.
"We dodged some bullets, but you have to give credit to our defense," Savage said. "We don't really strike many people out, but what we do is rely on our defense and have confidence the guys behind our pitcher will make plays for him."
The second part of UCLA's equation was capitalizing on opportunities. The Bruins, who entered the best-of-three title series hitting .182 and with only two extra-base hits, did just that in the first when Kevin Kramer reached first base on a strikeout by starting pitcher Trevor Fitts (0-1). Fitts' third strike was in the dirt and deflected off catcher Nick Ammirati's mask and trickled toward the MSU dugout.
"There's simply no way to block that," Cohen said. "We're searching around for the baseball because it hit our catcher in the mask and he can't find it."
Eric Filia followed with a double to left field to push runners to second and third. Pat Valaika's single to center gave UCLA a 1-0 lead. Fitts allowed only the one run on three hits in 1 1/3 innings, but the sophomore right-hander, who hasn't gone longer than four innings in any of his six postseason starts, took the loss after being removed from the game in the second inning with a 2-2 count against Brenton Allen. Senior left-hander Chad Girodo needed only one pitch to strike out Allen.
MSU, which has talked all season about trying to shorten its swings for hits rather than forcing its power as a big part of its identity, fell victim to Plutko's ability to work up in the strike zone with the fastball. Even when Plutko elevated his fastball, like he did on an 0-1 pitch to Trey Porter in the fourth, the Bruins were there to make the plays. This time, Filia caught Porter's drive to right field before slamming against the wall.
"It's frustrating because you feel like put yourself in a great chance to win the game over and over and over again, but they hit balls to the spots in the field that found grass," Cohen said. "We hit balls that found gloves."
As Cohen analyzed the boxscore, he pointed out several times the Bulldogs suffered what he considers the unfortunate randomness of the game of baseball.
"We punched out 12 of their guys, their one error didn't cost them, but our one error cost us," Cohen said. "What we've got to do is put everything behind us and try to win two ballgames."
UCLA capitalized on that error -- a throw by Ammirati that eluded first baseman Wes Rea -- that put runners on first and third with one out in the fourth. Girodo, whose 7 2/3-inning stint was the longest by a MSU reliever this season, recorded one of his nine strikeouts for the second out. Brian Carroll, who reached on the bunt that Ammirati overthrew to first, stole second and scored on Filia's single to right field that made it 3-0.
"We know our pitching is phenomenal, and when we get those few runs in the first, it's huge," Filia said. "It's weird to say that one run can make us feel comfortable, but that's the reality."
MSU's top three hitters in the postseason (Adam Frazier, Hunter Renfroe, and Rea) went 0-for-10 with five fly outs and two strikeouts.
"We wanted to make them hit our pitches, and we just kept doing that," Plutko said.
UCLA will try to do that again tonight, but Savage, whose team lost to the University of South Carolina in the College World Series title series in 2010, knows that will be a challenge. History appears to be on the Bruins' side, though. Of the 10 teams that have lost game one in the College World Series Finals, only Oregon State University (2006) and Fresno State University (2008) have come back to take the next two games to capture the national championship.
"Mississippi State is dangerous, and I think they proved that to us tonight," Savage said. "I told the team there's not much to get excited about because we can enjoy this one for 30 to 45 minutes and then start the preparation for game two."