March 18, 2013
Walk-ons Lead Thriving UCLA
By Zak Kerr, CollegeBaseballInsider.com
Zak Kerr is a journalism major at the
University of Richmond. The junior hails from Pittsburgh.
part of a rebuild of the UCLA pitching staff after starters
Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer went first and third overall in the
2011 Major League Baseball draft, head coach John Savage took in
a pair of walk-ons: Grant Watson (right) and David Berg.
After remarkable freshman campaigns that ended at
the College World Series, Watson has become a lock in the
weekend rotation, while Berg has become the closer.
Surely it must have been arduous to obtain such
prominent roles on the UCLA squad at the beginning of this
season as sophomores.
“Class doesn’t matter on this team, but
experience carries over,” Berg said. “I couldn’t have handled
finishing games at the beginning of last year, but I finished
games last year to transition to it.”
Then there at least must have been struggles to
earn their spots as walk-ons, right?
“It doesn’t matter on this team whether you’re on
scholarship or not,” Watson said. “All that matters is that you
work hard and make your best effort.”
And Watson and Berg have given extraordinary
efforts all season.
Through five starts, Watson, a lefty, leads the
rotation with a 4-0 record, 1.10 ERA, 32.2 innings, 20
strikeouts, 0.67 WHIP and .173 opponents' average. Berg, a
right-handed sidearmer, leads the team with a 0.84 ERA, 13
appearances – in 18 Bruins games – 27 strikeouts and five saves.
fast starts come on the heels of banner seasons as freshmen.
Watson (left) went 9-2, tying a school mark for wins by a
freshman, with a 4.45 ERA primarily as a midweek starter and
reliever. Berg relieved in 50 games – one short of the NCAA
Division I record set by Florida’s Connor Falkenbach in 2005 –
and finished 5-3 with a save, 63 strikeouts and 17 walks in 74
Watson’s most recent win came Sunday when he
tossed six scoreless innings with four hits and three strikeouts
against Washington. Before that, he beat USC in the Dodgertown
Classic – he also beat the Trojans at Dodger Stadium last
“It’s been a unique experience to throw against
USC both years,” Watson said. “The game has a good, fun baseball
vibe. I was living on our defense that game, keeping the ball
low. I’m a ground-ball pitcher.”
He struck out three in the classic, while
allowing just three hits and one run in seven innings.
“Watson has been as good as any Sunday guy in the
country this year,” Savage said. “He’s given us a quality start
every time out and given us a chance to win. He’s aggressive
with four pitches and fun to watch on Sundays.”
the resumption of the series opener against Washington, which
began Friday but was suspended until Saturday because of fog,
Berg (right) had his longest – and arguably most important –
outing of the season, though he would differ.
“I treat every inning as the same,” Berg said.
“None is more important than the other. When you make things
bigger in your head than they are, that’s when you struggle.”
Regardless, UCLA could not have won that game
without Berg’s four scoreless innings in which he spread three
hits and a hit batter to go with three strikeouts.
And those innings were the ninth through 12th,
with Washington’s Trevor Dunlap matching each of his zeroes,
until the Bruins ultimately broke through in the 15th.
A closer pitching four innings?
“There have been times when Coach has wanted to
take me out to save me for the rest of the weekend, but I’ve
just wanted to do what I could while I was in the game,” Berg
said. “I wanted to spark some momentum for the offense by
shutting down each inning quickly and easily. Coach has asked me
how I’ve felt, and I’ve told him, ‘Let’s worry about winning
Both pitchers said their physical routines are
the most critical elements of their success, but for different
“I just try to stick to the same routine each
week,” Watson said, “because your mind will make you feel
comfortable the more times you do something and know you’re
doing it right.”
Berg (left): “It starts with knowing what your body needs every
day and continues with body, leg and arm conditioning to be
The sophomores also differed in their routes to
the UCLA staff. While Watson was building a senior campaign that
won him Pitcher of the Year awards from Bakersfield (Calif.)
media, Berg was just getting the hang of his new throwing
“I hate to admit this,” Berg said, “but the root
of [my] change to sidearm came from not being good enough to
throw – even at the high school level – over the top, only 82 or
“I was throwing with my high school coach during
one practice junior year, and he saw some potential that could
carry me to the next level and suggested I change to sidearm. So
I dropped to sidearm part-time at first, to get myself into the
game more, which got me another eight or nine innings, but as
the season went on, my fastball command got better. I really
took a big step the next year, when I was able to command the
fastball and the slider.”
Adam Plutko (right), the returning staff ace, said he had seen a
continuum of excellence centered in the program’s team-first
values, this season being merely the latest chapter, and Berg
and Watson just the latest cast members.
“There’s a lot of turnover from one year to the
next that enables us to stay successful,” Plutko said. “It’s
always going to be a tradition of passing on ideas and practices
within the team. I learned a lot from Gerrit and Trevor, but
also a lot from less notable guys, like Scott Griggs.”
Watson noticed that when he was considering his
college baseball options, he said.
“I saw the success in 2010 and 2011 and how Coach
Savage was molding pitchers,” Watson said. “And the team had
Plutko said the key to that chemistry on defense
was great fielders.
“We are not making errors right now,”
Plutko said. “And even when we have, it’s always been just one
at a time, never anything big. The catchers are especially
making a difference for us pitchers now, especially Shane Zeile.
We are very talented as a pitching staff, but we couldn’t do it
without our defense.”
(left) certainly is one of those talented pitchers. As the
Friday starter, he is 2-0 with a 2.73 ERA, 19 strikeouts and
opponents’ average of .231. The other regular starter, junior
Nick Vander Tuig, threw a shutout against the Huskies in the
nightcap Saturday. He has gone 3-2 with a 1.80 ERA, 20
strikeouts and opponents’ average of .218.
So what is it that Cole and Bauer have imparted
to Plutko for him to pass on to Berg and Watson?
“With [Cole and Bauer] in the limelight at the
front of everything college baseball in 2011,” Plutko said, “it
taught me how to handle pressure off and on the field, but I’d
say more off the field.”
That includes the upcoming draft.
“The big elephant in the room is the draft,”
Plutko said. “As any junior knows, it’s in the back of your
head, but I’m just trying to focus on the team here as much as I
can and enjoy my last season here at UCLA.”
With Plutko, Vander Tuig and Watson in the
rotation, Berg closing and the bats coming alive, the Bruins may
enjoy walking on back to Omaha.
(photos by Don Liebig/ASUCLA)