The 2013 College World Series has redefined the term "unpredictable," as the favorites have been eliminated and two powerful underdogs remain. The Mississippi State Bulldogs and the UCLA Bruins have run through the competition, albeit unexpectedly, and now prepare to battle for the College World Series crown.
Before we look forward, however, we must review what has already been—the path that UCLA has traveled to the championship.
The Bruins have defied logic and thus reached the College World Series championship with minimal hype. While their team name may garner attention, they underwhelmed during the regular season and had periods of time in which they appeared to be in danger of missing the NCAA tournament.
Little did we know, they'd be one of the last two teams standing.
The Bruins finished the regular season at 39-17-0, earning a closing ranking of No. 15 in the NCAA polls. They'd lost two of their final three games prior to the NCAA tournament, although they managed to maintain their status as one of the Pac-12's elite teams.
No one saw this coming.
The Bruins started off slow, losing their season-opener and dropping an early one to Baylor to fall to 3-2. From there, UCLA won 14-of-16 and improved to 17-4, thus creating the appearance of one of the nation's top squads.
Then, it went 10-9 over its next 19 and it all fell apart—or so it seemed.
The Bruins had trouble with their bats, failing to generate offense in an ideal manner. Even as their pitching staff performed at a high rate, they simply couldn't piece together wins on a consistent basis.
Going 12-4 during their final 16 regular-season games certainly put a hold on those concerns.
Elite Pitching Staff
The UCLA Bruins disappointed throughout the course of the season, as they hit the ball at a less-than-ideal rate. Not a single one of their starters hit above .300 and their home run hitters were all but nonexistent.
Behind its dominant pitching staff, UCLA survived.
Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig proved to be one of the nation's top pitching duos, each racking up wins with a low ERA. Including the College World Series, Plutko is 9-3 with a 2.29 ERA, while Vander Tuig sits at 13-4 with a 2.31 ERA.
Paired with closer David Berg going 7-0 with 23 saves and an ERA of 0.96, UCLA has experienced no trouble protecting leads and keeping games close.
Even as their hitters have struggled to contribute on a consistent basis, the Bruins' pitchers have carried them into the College World Series. With Grant Watson coming along and going 9-3 with a 3.01 ERA, the trinity has been completed.
Thus, the Bruins are two wins away from the College World Series title.
NCAA Tournament Dominance
Thus far, the Bruins have won every single game that they've played at the NCAA tournament and College World Series. This comes in spite of the fact that they've yet to score more than six runs in a single game.
It's quite remarkable that a team so inconsistent during the regular season has been this dominant when it matters most.
UCLA dominated the NCAA tournament, defeating Cal Poly, San Diego and San Diego State. That includes a 6-0 shutout of San Diego, which solidified its berth in the Super Regionals.
While there, the Bruins defeated Cal State Fullerton in consecutive games by a combined score of 8-3. Yet another shutout secured their advancement, as Vander Tuig led the charge with 6.1 brilliant innings.
The pressure of the College World Series hasn't been able to slow them down.
College World Series: Battling the Elite
The UCLA Bruins were one of the most surprising participants in the College World Series, as they closed out the regular season in a less-than-admirable fashion. With a strong NCAA tournament behind them, though, UCLA was given an outside shot against high-powered LSU.
Fresh off of an 11-run outburst against Oklahoma, the Tigers managed to score just one run against UCLA.
Plutko set the stage with 7.0 innings of one-run work, proving that the Bruins could pitch against the best in the country. Vander Tuig matched his elite counterpart with that same stat line, holding the North Carolina State Wolfpack to one run after they'd just run up eight on North Carolina.
Speaking of the Tar Heels, they too were held to one run, as Watson went 6.0 scoreless innings and led UCLA to a 4-1 win.
Now, the Bruins are preparing to do battle with a Mississippi State Bulldogs team that has broken through against elite opponents of their own. While their history may be strong, there is no guarantee that UCLA will be able to overcome this foe.
With that being said, the Bruins didn't make it this far for no reason—UCLA is a few pitches away from the ultimate college baseball glory.