UCLA beats North Carolina 4-1, advances to CWS finals

OMAHA, Neb. — UCLA’s route to the College World Series finals has been nothing if not adventurous.

The Bruins, who have been winning in Omaha despite a scuffling offense, got a two-run double from Pat Valaika to build a cushion, and then record-setting closer David Berg survived a rocky ninth inning to finish a 4-1 victory over top-seeded North Carolina on Friday night.

The Bruins (47-17) will begin the best-of-three finals Monday against Mississippi State, which eliminated Oregon State with a 4-1 win in the afternoon.

“I’m proud of our team, but we still haven’t accomplished what we came to do,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “On to the next round.”

Savage, no doubt, is relieved to advance.

The Tar Heels (59-12) twice loaded the bases in the ninth against Berg but came away with only one run, with the game ending on Landon Lassiter’s flyout to center.

Berg wasn’t his usual dominant self in the Bruins’ first two wins, and he really struggled against the Tar Heels.

“I would say he’s been pushed,” Savage said. “But come on, you get run out there as much as he does, I mean, you’re not going to go 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Things are going to happen.

“He’s one of the major reasons why we’re here. He can screw up every now and then, it’s OK.”

The elimination of North Carolina, which set a school record for wins, means the Atlantic Coast Conference will go without a national title in baseball again. The last ACC team to win the championship was Wake Forest in 1955. And the top seed hasn’t won the College World Series since Miami in 1999.

“The end of the year, it always stinks,” Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “What we did in the ninth inning is just indicative of our kids and how we played all year. Just fighting until the very end.”

Both starters went six innings, with the Bruins’ Grant Watson (9-3) allowing four hits and Kent Emanuel (11-5) giving up five singles and striking out seven.

UCLA opened the CWS with 2-1 victories over LSU and North Carolina State. The Bruins, with eight total runs, matched 1976 Eastern Michigan for fewest by a team in the metal-bat era that won its first three CWS games.

The Bruins scored single runs in the second and sixth innings and made it 4-0 in the seventh on Valaika’s double.

North Carolina threatened in the fourth and seventh innings but couldn’t push across any runs until Berg, the National Stopper of the Year, came on to start the ninth.

Cody Stubbs and Sky Bolte singled, and Berg walked Michael Russell to load the bases. Savage made a mound visit after Berg went 1-0 to Mike Zolk, whose groundout scored Stubbs.

Berg struck out Parks Jordan, and the bases were loaded again when he walked Chaz Frank. When Lassiter’s fly landed in Brian Carroll’s glove, the Bruins’ dugout emptied in celebration.

“I have the same approach every game — go there and try to get a pitch you can hit and see what happens,” Lassiter said, “and we just fell short.”

UCLA has held its opponents to two runs or fewer in 31 of 64 games and is 30-1 in those games.

Watson followed strong starts by Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig with one of his own to help send the Bruins to the finals for the second time, and first since they were swept by South Carolina in 2010.

“I was trying to go pitch-to-pitch,” Watson said, “and concentrate on hitting location since I know North Carolina has a bunch of great hitters. I knew I wasn’t going to throw it by them at all. So I worried about locating.”

Savage decided to go with Watson, who hadn’t pitched in 19 days, instead of bringing back No. 1 starter Adam Plutko on four days of rest.

“I thought about it for less than five seconds,” Savage said. “We know how good Grant is. He’s been a big reason why we’re here, and he was ready to pitch. I think he showed the whole country that he could pitch on a big stage.”

Emanuel, the ACC player of the year and third-round pick of the Houston Astros, came into the game scuffling in the NCAA tournament. He had a 11.40 ERA over his last five appearances and didn’t make it out of the third inning in the Tar Heels’ CWS opener against North Carolina State.

The junior left-hander was solid in his 112-pitch outing. One of the two runs against him was unearned.

“Hopefully people feel like we played hard every game and represented college athletics and college baseball the right way,” Fox said. “The winning is part of it certainly, but so many other special things went on throughout our season.”

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