The USC Trojans put the pressure on the UCLA Bruins (37-16, 20-7) all weekend long, but came up just short in the final game of three-game series, falling 5-2 on Senior Day at Dedeaux Field.
“Some of our youth and immaturity showed up sometimes but we are proud of them,” said USC head coach Dan Hubbs following the loss. “I would rather feel this, as opposed to how last season ended.”
The Trojans (19-33, 10-17) had their best chance to salvage the final game of the series in the 8th inning when freshmen shortstop Blake Lacey worked out a full-count hit by pitch to load the bases with two outs, being the tying run at first base.
UCLA head coach John Savage went to his guns in the bullpen, bringing in sophomore sensation David Berg who had not allowed a run in 33.1 consecutive innings, coming into Sunday’s contest and now owns a 0.59 ERA.
“There is not a lot of panic with this team,” Dan Hubbs said. “They are comfortable being in the difficult spots, and I don’t think anyone is more comfortable than David Berg, ‘the wizard’ in that spot.”
Berg faced junior Dante Flores who put a shot in the hole on the left side of the infield but UCLA shortstop Pat Valaika made a sensational play, snagging the ball on a backhanded stab and then had the presence of mind to throw a rocket over to third, ending the Trojans’ rally.
“Their defense is outstanding,” Senior Greg Zebrack said. “They just played better than us, and we gave them a little to much all weekend long.”
The Bruins closer followed up that stunning display, by notching his 16th save of the season and third of the series, by retiring junior James Roberts to end the game. Berg was fantastic this weekend, throwing 4.2 innings of scoreless relief, now up to 34.2 innings consecutive scoreless innings, and only allowed two hits while striking out two Trojans with his patented side-arm delivery.
The Trojans scored first thanks to an RBI sac fly from senior Greg Zebrack, who was one of four players honored as part of Senior Day over at Dedeaux Field.
This was the norm over the weekend, as the Trojans blew leads in all three contests, to the pesky Bruins, who have relied on pitching and defense all season long to propel their 37-win campaign.
“When you play really good teams, it comes down to maybe making the play, making the pitch,” said Hubbs. “Whatever it takes, [UCLA] made the big play all weekend long.”
The Bruins began the comeback against freshmen starter Kyle Twomey, thanks to sloppy control from the Trojans starter. Twomey blew through the first two innings without any trouble, until the Bruins started to exhibit more patience at the plate the second time around the order.
UCLA struck for two runs in the third thanks to two hit batsmen and walks surrendered by the Trojans lefty in the same inning, granting third basemen Kevin Kramer to deliver, driving in a two-rbi single giving him a team-high 38 on the season, propelling the Bruins five-run outburst.
In the bottom of the fifth, the Trojans responded scoring their second and final run of the game on an RBI fielders choice off the bat of James Roberts, plating Timmy Robinson. The Trojans put runners in scoring position the next four innings, out hitting UCLA 12-8 in the contest, but failed to score any more runs.
Freshmen reliever Brent Wheatley kept the Trojans in the ball game, by throwing three innings of scoreless relief, after surrendering the winning run in Friday night’s 2-1 loss. Wheatley registered a perfect outing, brining the crowd of 1106 to their feet awaiting another cardiac comeback by the Trojans.
The difference in the contest rested in timely hitting and tremendous defense from the Bruins, who spot the Pac-12’s best fielding percentage (.979) and once again flexed their muscle as the infield tandem Pat Valaika and Kevin Kramer made sensational plays all weekend long.
They were equally impressive at the dish, combining to drive in four of the five Bruin runs on Sunday, catching the Trojans attention following their 10th win in their last 12 games.
“I don’t think their pitching beat us, I don’t think their hitting beat us, Kramer and Valiaka won the series,” was the difference according to Hubbs. “Early in the game Kramer made a diving catch, and Valiaka played unbelievable baseball.”
The Trojans honored their four seniors: Adam Landecker, Matt Munson, Greg Zebrack and Nick Berhel on Senior Day, in a fitting ceremony before the contest. The seniors came out swinging early and often as Landecker continued his outstanding season, who is now hitting over .360, following his 4-5 performance on Sunday. The other starting senior Greg Zebrack, went 1-3 with an RBI in his second season at USC, after returning to Troy following three seasons at Penn as an All-Ivy League Outfielder.
“It’s kind of weird. It’s weird because we still have games left,” Zebrack said. “The last at-bat was weird, because it was sad to have my last at-bat at Dedeaux. But you move on, it’s baseball.”
Following the three-game sweep, decided by a total of five runs, the Trojans will hit the road to UC Irvine on Tuesday and then a three-game series from Tuscon, to battle the defending NCAA National Champions in the final series of the season.