The great thing about the College World Series' best-of-three championship format is that teams never get a chance to breathe. You're always seemingly one out, one mislocated pitch away from having your back against the wall, the dream you worked so hard for on the precipice of decline.
There were no such mistakes for UCLA on Monday night. The Bruins followed a pattern that has been prevalent throughout their College World Series run, using pitching and defense to defeat a game Mississippi State squad 3-1.
Adam Plutko went six strong innings, allowing only one run over four hits while pitching mostly to contact. The Bruins got to Bulldogs starter Trevor Fitts early, pushing him out of the game after only 1.1 innings, and then hit up replacement Chad Girodo for a critical two runs in the fourth—ones that ultimately finalized the score.
Throughout the contest, UCLA found itself getting well-timed defensive plays and clutch pitching from the men on the mound. Facing off against a stout Mississippi State lineup, it seemed likely the Bruins would have more trouble than usual controlling how things were going. But even in the face of a couple jams, UCLA was able to persevere the way it has throughout this tournament.
Now, one game away from taking home the championship, the Bruins can put things away for good on Tuesday night.
Let's check in quickly with a couple notes on both teams before Game 2 gets underway in a couple hours.
When: Tuesday, June 25 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.
Major Points of Emphasis
UCLA: Get on the Scoreboard Early
This is quite simple for the Bruins. Throughout the regular season and in their run to Omaha, they have followed an eerily familiar script: Score early, hope like holy hell to hold on late. And the team's pitching and defense have taken on an almost Tampa Bay Rays level of excellence, staving off hard-charging teams throughout.
Plutko was able to get it done on Monday. The Bruins ace followed the script he had so many times this year, keeping his pitch count low and finding smart locations with his pitches. He's now 10-3 on the season, with a microscopic 2.32 ERA. While it might have been shocking to see him fall all the way to the 11th round in the MLB draft, the Cleveland Indians might have picked themselves up a gem in the making.
Plutko will be followed by Nick Vander Tuig, himself a burgeoning young pitcher. Drafted five rounds ahead of his teammate by the San Francisco Giants, Vander Tuig has arguably been the Bruins' most successful starter this year. The junior righty has a 13-4 record on the season, and he's allowed only one run in his last two outings.
Will Vander Tuig be able to find that same rhythm on Tuesday? That remains to be seen. But the impetus will be on the offense to make things easier on their compadre early on.
The key in Game 1 was that UCLA got on the board early and vanquished most of the pressure in the moment. Plutko had a three-run lead before ever being in danger of giving up one himself. Vander Tuig could use the same treatment, especially considering he's facing one of the most potent lineups in the country.
If the Bulldogs strike early with a two or three spot in the first couple of innings, UCLA may struggle to come back. The Bruins have hit exactly 19 home runs this season. Zero batters from their Game 1 lineup are hitting above the .280 mark. The team's highest-scoring output of the entire College World Series was a whopping four runs; this team has gotten here on ingenuity and beautiful pitching, not by being able to microwave up some runs.
Vander Tuig can do everything in his power to hold off Mississippi State, but the Bulldogs will find a way to score in this contest. As evidenced by this entire tournament, getting one or two runs early for UCLA will be vital in its efforts to win.
Major Key for Mississippi State: Remember That Great Hitting Can Beat Great Pitching
We've established that the Bulldogs aren't going to need much from their pitching staff. Barring some catastrophe where wild pitches and walks become something of the norm, Mississippi State should be able to keep UCLA under the five-run mark. Too much history points to that being the case to think otherwise.
That's good for the Bulldogs, mainly because they're not exactly teeming with great arms. Mississippi State has about as much starting pitching prowess as UCLA does hitting. Kendall Graveman will get the start on Tuesday night and he's been by far the team's most reliable starter, but this is a team that relies heavily on its bullpen. There will be a quick plug waiting for Graveman should he struggle in the least, and the Bulldogs' bullpen arms have been excellent in the College World Series.
This team's calling card is unquestionably its offensive firepower. Boasting six batters with averages of .280 or higher—four of which are over the .300 mark—the Bulldogs had one of the most potent offenses in college baseball this season.
Hunter Renfroe, the 13th overall selection in this year's draft, obviously gets the most attention. But he's surrounded by players like Adam Frazier, Wes Rea and others who make this one of the more satisfying lineups in the country.
So it was strange to see how Game 1 played out. The Bruins dictated the entire contest with Plutko's arm and their defense, defanging the potent attack with just six hits. It was as if Mississippi State was satisfied to play small-ball and succumb to the wills of UCLA.
Of course, the old analogy goes that great pitching defeats great hitting. It's one of those rote cliches that has been prevalent in baseball forever and a day, but actually has some basis in truth. Research has shown, the linked piece by The Hardball Times being one of many studies, that great pitching on average does tend outweigh hitting—at least in the professional ranks. While I've yet to read a study commissioned on collegiate baseball, one has to assume the theory carries over.
But let's be clear hear; Vander Tuig is not Pedro Martinez circa 2000. He's a very good young pitcher, but one who makes mistakes that can be taken advantage of by good hitters. Mississippi State has those in droves. The Bulldogs need a mere four or five runs to get the job done.
Considering the stakes, it's going to be interesting to see whether that's doable on Tuesday night.
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