Jake Bird is back.
After battling through a midseason shoulder injury and losing the Saturday starting spot, the right-hander pitched 6 1/3 scoreless innings of relief, recording seven strikeouts.
“That was a big, big moment in his junior year, coming back from what he did,” said coach John Savage. “Jake went out there and the more he pitched the better he got, and he kind of got back to where he was earlier in the year.”
Bird’s dominant outing helped UCLA (23-20, 12-8 Pac-12) secure a 4-2 victory over USC (19-24, 6-14) in the second game of their series at Dedeaux Field.
Senior starter Moises Ceja allowed three singles and a double in the first inning that gave the Trojans an early 2-0 lead. The right-hander was replaced by Bird the following inning after giving up another single and a walk.
The Bruins answered in the top of the second. Freshman right fielder Michael Toglia led off with a double to left center and advanced to third when redshirt sophomore designated hitter Zander Clarke reached first on an error. He scored when fellow freshman short stop Ryan Kreidler doubled to right center, cutting USC’s lead in half.
“It was really fun to see the freshmen come up clutch again,” Bird said. “Those guys are a good bunch.”
In the fifth inning, junior first baseman Sean Bouchard evened the score with a solo home run to left center. The blast was his team-leading eighth of the season.
But it wasn’t until the top of the ninth that UCLA broke the game open. Toglia walked to start the inning, and freshman second baseman Chase Strump followed up with a single to right center. Sophomore pinch hitter Jake Pries singled to load the bases for Kreidler, who rifled a single up the middle that gave the Bruins a two-run lead.
“Pries comes up and hits a ball through the five-six hole that could’ve scored a run, and then I go 0-2,” Kreidler said. “(USC pitcher Connor Lunn) just made a mistake and I was lucky enough to put the bat on it.”
Freshman Nick Scheidler took over for Bird in the middle of the eighth inning after the junior had retired his last twelve batters in a row. Bird cited the return of his command on the mound as a key factor in his success, as well as his teammates’ near-perfect fielding.
“Our outfield defense has gotten really good,” Bird said. “Even if they’re getting under the ball and hitting it in the air, as long as it’s not out of the park, our guys will make the plays.”
Scheidler recorded two strikeouts in his inning on the mound, before senior closer Scott Burke came in to retire the final batters of the game.
Even without freshman designated hitter Kyle Cuellar – currently sporting a team-high .327 average – and sophomore center fielder Daniel Amaral in the lineup, the Bruins were able to clinch their series against the Trojans. Savage said that Cuellar was sick and Amaral was still waiting to be cleared to play.
“We did our job, and they kind of gave us a few,” Kreidler said. “We needed this win.”