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CBD Visit: Bruins Sweep USC Behind Berg & Valaika

David Berg recorded three saves.LOS ANGELES — Sophomore David Berg set the UCLA school record with his 16th save of the season and pushed his scoreless streak to 34 2/3 innings pitched on Sunday.

The scoreless 1 1/3 innings he pitched in the series finale at Dedeaux Field was also his third save of the weekend as UCLA (37-15, 20-7) swept rival USC.

The Trojans (19-33, 10-17) were in all three games, but couldn’t get over the hump, losing back-to-back one-run contests before Sunday’s 5-2 defeat. They dropped Friday night’s game when the turf monster bit them on a flukey play where the “earth moved and sod came up” as USC head coach Dan Hubbs described it.

On Saturday, USC issued 10 walks and gave up a five-run seventh inning that featured five walks and an error. The Trojans rallied back with three runs in the bottom half of the inning and had two runners on base, but Berg came on for his longest save of the season, going 2 1/3 innings to close it out.

It was more of the same on Sunday as USC got 12 hits, but managed only two runs, stranding 10 runners on base and having another two cut down on the base paths. UCLA, on the other hand, scored an efficient five runs on eight hits led by the left side of the infield — Kevin Kramer and Pat Valaika each had multiple hits and drove in a pair of runs.

The weekend sweep also gave UCLA head coach John Savage his 400th career victory.

BREAKDOWN

The Game Changer:

Valaika, Patrick Ryne (noun) — 1. See That’s Filthy.

That’s Filthy:

Valaika ranges deep in the hole.

Best Defensive Play: You could try to pinpoint one particular play that Pat Valaika made, but they all blend together into one amalgamation of defensive excellence.

There was the two-out flare from Greg Zebrack on Friday that Valaika raced straight back and snagged out of the air, keeping the go-ahead run from scoring. There was the ball deep in the hole Valaika cut off with the backhand, rared back and fired to beat Bobby Stahel, who dove into first base. That kept the tying run from getting on base in the ninth inning.

Or there were the two plays in the eighth inning on Saturday that kept Stahel from scoring the tying run and held Berg’s scoreless inning streak in tact. One was a slow chopper behind the mound. Valaika backhanded the other and threw out Blake Lacey by a step. It was a play very similar to the one he made to end the previous inning when USC had scored three runs and had runners on the corners after cutting UCLA’s lead to 7-6.

Oh, but then there’s Sunday’s diving play up the middle that Valaika glove flipped to second base to rob an RBI single. Dang, there’s also the intelligent play he made when USC had the bases loaded and Valaika threw to third base for an inning-ending force out when a grounder in the hole took his momentum toward third. That one ended USC’s rally before it really got going.

“Some people think the only difference you can make is a big hit or on offense,” Valaika said. “You can make a big difference on defense. I just want to help my pitchers out. They work hard for all nine innings so I’m out there and I try to help them out.”

Valaika is batting .271 with a team-best five homers and 37 RBI, but his defense saves almost as many runs as his bat could ever produce and that was on full display all weekend.

USC head coach Dan Hubbs even said after Saturday’s 7-6 loss that Valaika had “saved the game for [UCLA] twice.” Hubbs probably would have said three times after Sunday’s performance.

Best Pitch/Pitcher: If coach Savage would let him, David Berg would probably volunteer to pitch in every game. The sidewinding sophomore pitched in all three this weekend, notching his 14th, 15th and 16 saves on the season to break the UCLA school record set last season by Scott Griggs.

Berg comes into the game and just pounds the strike zone with an 80-82 mph fastball that he can manipulate to move in a variety of directions whether it is is down and away from lefties or boring in on the hands of right handers. Berg also throws a frisbee slider that breaks in on the hands of left-handed hitters much quicker than most anticipate.

Getting in on the hands of hitters is the key for Berg and when that is something you focus on, there is always the potential to make mistakes on the inner half of the plate. However, Berg seems to never do that. To hear him tell it, he doesn’t feel like he’s thrown but one really bad pitch since making some small adjustments following a weekend trip to Baylor the second week of the season.

That pitch was at Arizona State when Berg left a pitch up for pinch hitter Dalton Dinatale, who banged a game-tying two-run homer in the ninth inning. That pitch accounts for the only runs Berg has allowed since the Baylor series. Since the first two weeks, Berg has a 0.33 ERA in 54 1/3 innings pitched. Since Dinatale’s home run, Berg has pitched 34 2/3 innings without allowing a run.

He has appeared in 38 of UCLA’s 54 games and thrown 61 innings. Hitters are batting a measly .183 against him and he’s allowed only seven walks all season.

Quotable:

UCLA junior shortsop Pat Valaika discussed the Bruins’ plate discipline in Saturday’s win. He also talked about his love for playing defense and making a difference with big plays:

John Savage, head coach of the Bruins, talked after Saturday’s game about the fight he saw from USC in the rivalry series. Savage talked about his usage of David Berg and the defense of Pat Valaika.

Savage also said he is “very confident” having veteran frontline starters in Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig:

USC head coach Dan Hubbs talked after Saturday’s game about being proud of the way the team fought, but points out how making one play completely changes how the game progresses.

Hubbs also discussed the players being more invested in the program recently and changing the culture around Dedeaux Field.

After Friday night’s 2-1 win, Bruins sophomore closer David Berg chatted about his excitement when he saw he was going to have a save opportunity in the opener.

He also talked about his mentality when entering the game and trying not to think about his scoreless inning streak:

Top Performers:

Game 1

UCLA

  • Adam Plutko – 6 IP, 4 H, ER, 3 BB, 4 K
  • Ty Moore – 1-for-2, BB

USC

  • James Roberts - 1-for-2, 2B, RBI, BB
  • Bobby Wheatley – 7 IP, 7 H, ER, 4 BB, 4 K

Game 2

UCLA

  • Eric Filia – 1-for-3, R, 2B, 3 RBI, 2 BB
  • Pat Valaika - 2-for-5, R, RBI
  • David Berg – 2.1 IP, H, 0 R, 0 BB, HBP, Save

USC

  • Adam Landecker - 2-for-4, R, 2B, RBI, HBP
  • Bobby Stahel – 2-for-3, R, HBP, SB
  • Sean Adler - 1.2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, BB, 2 K

Game 3

UCLA

  • Kevin Kramer - 3-for-5, 2 R, 2 RBI
  • Pat Valaika - 2-for-4, 3B, 2 RBI, BB

USC

  • Adam Landecker – 4-for-5, R, SB
  • Blake Lacey – 2-for-3, HBP
  • Brent Wheatley – 3 IP, 0 H, 0 R, BB, K

The Bottom Line:

With the series sweep, UCLA pulls within two games of Oregon State in the Pac-12 race. It is tied with Oregon in second place, but the Bruins hold the tiebreaker after having won the season series.

However, Oregon State holds the tiebreaker over the Bruins. While UCLA could mathematically still win the Pac-12 outright. It will have to sweep Stanford at Sunken Diamond — not an easy task, but also wouldn’t be a shocker. But Oregon State would also have to be swept by Washington State and considering the Beavers have only lost nine games this season, that’s quite unlikely.

UCLA’s focus will likely be targeting one of the national seeds. The Bruins would not likely be a national seed if the selection was determined today. But there’s no telling what type of madness will take place in conference tournaments next weekend. The Bruins can only focus on themselves and winning their remaining four games and hoping someone slips up in front of them.

The big benefit of being a national seed is the potential to host the Super Regional round. But UCLA would get the bonus of not having to face a Cal State Fullerton squad that has beaten the Bruins twice during the midweek, in the Super Regional round where the two SoCal frontrunners are likely to meet if one is a national seed and the other is not.

For USC, the season has been over for all intents and purposes for several weeks, but it’s good to see the fight that the team has continued to display down the stretch under the tutelage of Dan Hubbs, who took over this season after Frank Cruz was dismissed a week before the season began.

Hubbs said he is really proud of the way the team has battled recently. He is also glad to see the emotional impact, both positive and negative, the games have been taking on the team as a whole rather than only a player or two being affected by the outcome, which is something Hubbs believes was a problem for the first year and a half of his tenure on the coaching staff.

Having had to rely on a large nucleus of freshmen and sophomore, the Trojans should return a strong core next season. While they will lose their two leading hitters in seniors Adam Landecker and Greg Zebrack and the next two highest averages belong to juniors, who will be eligible for the draft, in James Roberts and Kevin Swick, the Trojans should have almost every other player that has played a significant role return next season.

It is going to be a crucial recruiting class for whoever is tabbed with the head coach title, whether that be Hubbs or a to-be-named replacement. USC has several big-time commitments, including Dominic Smith, JP Crawford, Rowdy Tellez, Jeremy Martinez, Ryan McMahon and Riley Unroe.

All six of those prospects have been graded as top three round draft picks at different times this season. Smith and Crawford are highly unlikely to ever set foot on USC’s campus. The other four are all varying degrees of it depends upon when they are drafted and how much money they are offered.

The Trojans have been able to hold onto a couple of top picks the last two seasons getting lefties Stephen Tarpley, an eighth round pick in 2011, and Kyle Twomey, a third round selection last year, in the cardinal and gold. However, neither has quite panned out exactly as was expected.

Tarpley had a great freshman year, but left the program during the summer, transferring to Scottsdale Community College. Twomey had a great start to the season but is 2-7 with a 5.82 ERA as he’s struggled to adjust to the college game and further develop his secondary pitches.

If USC is able to get two of their top six recruits to suit up for the Trojans next season, it will be considered a success. They need to build depth with the incoming class, but they need some star power as well. The star power could also come from the maturation of the sophomore class.

There are big expectations for players such as Timmy Robinson, Vahn Bozoian and Blake Lacey. All three have been in the lineup the majority of the season and have seen their ups and downs. How big of a step forward the freshman class takes this offseason will have a great impact on whether the Trojans can finally get USC back to relevance and the Regionals for the first time since 2005.