UCLA's baseball season came to an end with a 4-3 loss to UC Irvine in an NCAA regional game Sunday night at Jackie Robinson Stadium in a manner that has become quite familiar to Bruins' fans.
Some will blame Bruins closer Nick Vander Tuig for allowing the tying and winning runs to score on three hits in the bottom of the ninth as UC Irvine clinched a spot in the Super Regionals next week against Virginia.
But the Bruins lost this game, as they had lost so many this year, because they put too much weight and too much pressure on the shoulders of their elite pitching staff by continually failing to finish rallies.
UCLA left 13 men on base in Sunday's game, bring their total to 40 in four regional games. They scored only 10 runs in those four games and that was little for even one of the top starting pitching rotations in the nation to overcome.
"That was really the story of our season," coach John Savage said. "We just could not get people in."
Freshman Zack Weiss, a rising star, was the victim of that lack of run support on Sunday, but it could just have easily have been any one of the Bruins stellar starters. Weiss pitched eight innings and gave up three runs on six hits and three walks with six strikeouts.
He gave up consecutive singles to start the game, then didn't give up another hit until the fifth. UCLA managed to get a 3-0 lead by then, but had also left two men on base in each of the first four innings. Clinging to a 3-2 lead, the Bruins loaded the bases in the eighth, but left all three men out there.
The Bruins had gotten away with stranding 14 runners on Saturday thanks to a dominant pitching performance by Trevor Bauer in a 3-1 victory over Fresno State. They stranded eight runners Sunday afternoon, but Adam Plutko pitched a gem and UCLA won, 4-1.
But the high LOB total finally came back to haunt UCLA as Irvine rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth, a rally capped by Ronnie Shaeffer's two-strike walk-off single just inside the first base line to score pinch-runner Scott Gottschling with the winning run.
"I was just trying to get the guy in from third, that’s the main goal there," Shaeffer said. "I was sitting there ready for a fastball. Once I got to two strikes, I tried to battle and I stuck the bat out there and snuck it by the first baseman."
It's the type of clutch hit with men on that UCLA had trouble getting all season.
The Bruins this season averaged only 4.6 runs per game and ranked 249th of 292 teams in Division I before the regional started. They'll be even lower after averaging 2.5 in the four regional games. UCLA scored four runs or fewer in 38 of their 59 games this season. That's 64% of the time.
They also ranked 243rd with a .263 batting average and had only two regulars--Dean Espy and Cody Keefer--finish the season at .300 or higher. And they averaged 8.14 men left on base per game.
So that's why even with a starting rotation that boasts Gerrit Cole, the projected No. 1 pick in Monday's MLB Draft and Bauer, the premier pitcher in college baseball this season, the Bruins finished with a 35-24 record. UCLA had a team ERA of 2.44, the lowest at UCLA since 1969--in the wooden bat era--yet lost 24 games.
"For whatever reason, we didn’t produce enough runs for how many runners we had on," Savage said. "It’s frustrating."
It is a disappointing end for the Bruins, who had high hopes this season after advancing to the College World Series finals last year and returning a strong nucleus of players from that team. But the Bruins will be staying home this year with memories of missed opportunities to keep them company.
"I would say for us, we're disappointed that we didn't get where we want to go," designated hitter Jeff Gelalich said. "I know the guys that will be coming back will remember this and hopefully we will learn from this."