When Utah senior outfielder Tyler Relf made contact in the fourth inning on Sunday, his hit looked to be nothing more than a routine ground ball up the middle.
But the ball took a wild 90-degree turn as it reached the pitcher, ricocheting off of sophomore pitcher Grant Watson’s foot and dribbling into shallow right field, allowing Utah to score the tying run. It was a demoralizing play that cut the Bruins’ momentum short. But the very next play, UCLA stole momentum right back as it thwarted Utah’s squeeze attempt, throwing the runner out at home.
UCLA (31-13, 14-7 Pac-12) baseball responded to every challenge Utah (31-13, 14-7) threw its way this weekend, earning a three-game sweep by limiting Utah’s damage while dealing out some of its own.
“You’ve got to be able to take blows and you’ve got to be able to throw blows,” said coach John Savage.
The Bruins threw the first blow of the series, a two-run first inning on Friday. After junior pitcher Adam Plutko gave up a game-tying two-run homer in the third inning, UCLA immediately retook the lead and never looked back, leaning on the top of its lineup – junior outfielder Brian Carroll, sophomore infielder Kevin Kramer, sophomore outfielder Eric Filia and junior infielder Pat Valaika – to supply the offensive firepower in a 5-2 win.
“Those guys are the heart and soul of our program. We need those guys to be productive and they’ve been doing a good job lately,” Savage said.
The Bruins were in a different position in game two after the Utes jumped out to an early 1-0 lead in the first. But behind another set of strong performances by the top of the order, UCLA battled back to take the lead. Junior pitcher Nick Vander Tuig shrugged off a shaky start to the game, in which Utah scored two runs in the first two innings, to hold Utah scoreless through the seventh. The Bruins won 5-4, holding off a late rally.
Vander Tuig attributed his shaky first couple of innings to his mechanics feeling off.
“For some reason it took me a while to get that feeling back, but in the late innings I got it back and was myself,” Vander Tuig said.
After clinching the series win on Saturday, No. 9 UCLA looked for the sweep on Sunday and seemed to be on its way to getting it after another first-inning score. After the Utes took a two-run lead in the top of the sixth, the Bruins again answered in the bottom of the inning, scrapping together two runs of their own to tie the game.
Later, UCLA loaded the bases in the ninth inning and Filia scored the game-winning run off of a sacrifice fly by redshirt freshman catcher Justin Hazard, giving the Bruins the 4-3 victory.
“I was just like ‘just keep going.’ I was telling the ball to keep going. Filia’s got pretty good speed so I knew it wouldn’t take that much, but when I saw it at the end, I knew it (was far enough),” Hazard said.
The sweep was UCLA’s first since the middle of March against Washington and came at an important time, as UCLA’s regular season begins to wind down with just three conference series left.
“It’s huge. Conference is coming down. It always comes down to the last game, so every win we can get, it matters,” Valaika said.