March 18, 2013


Walk-ons Lead Thriving UCLA Pitching Staff

By Zak Kerr,


Zak Kerr is a journalism major at the University of Richmond. The junior hails from Pittsburgh.


As 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.


The 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 innings.


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 season.


“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.”


In 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 today.’”


Both pitchers said their physical routines are the most critical elements of their success, but for different reasons.


“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.”


Added Berg (left): “It starts with knowing what your body needs every day and continues with body, leg and arm conditioning to be ready physically.”


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 motion.


“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 83 [mph].


“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.”


Junior 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 good chemistry.”


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.”


Plutko (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)