By Fred J. Robledo, Staff Writer
UCLA freshman pitcher David Berg turned an experiment at Bishop Amat into a dream ride that he hasn’t fully come to grips with.
How many high school middle relievers could walk on at UCLA and have the instant impact that Berg has had for the nation’s second-ranked Bruins?
UCLA (45-14) is set to begin its best-of-three Super Regional series against Texas Christian (40-20) tonight at 6 on ESPN. Game 2 is Saturday and Game 3 (if necessary) on Sunday. All games are at UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium with the winner earning a berth to the College World Series in Omaha.
“I get chills just thinking about it,” Berg said. “Every kid has this dream. But the way it’s happened for me is difficult to put into words.
“All I wanted was to become the best high school pitcher I could, but somehow the horizon keeps extending for me. It’s surreal.”
Like at Bishop Amat, the blonde-haired Berg has become UCLA’s middle-relieving phenomenon.
Berg has made a Pac-12 record-setting 45 appearances for UCLA and Wednesday was named to the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American team. He is only six appearances shy of tying the NCAA’s single-season record of 51 appearances set by Florida’s Conner Falkenbach in 2005.
Berg, one of only two freshmen named to the Pac-12 all-conference team, is 5-3 with a 1.71 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 63 1/3 innings.
Kind of amazing when you consider that just a couple years ago he was a junior at Bishop Amat struggling to make the team and rotation.
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“I’d say the last 14 to 16 months will go down as one of the most memorable year and a halfs of my life,” Berg said. “I would imagine it would be right there next to getting married or having children because I’m living in a dream right now.”
How he came to realize that dream is what leaves Berg searching for the right words to describe it.
During the fall of Berg’s junior year, Bishop Amat coach Andy Nieto and pitching coach Chris Beck wondered what to do with their mid-80s throwing right-hander who was a hard worker and one of the smartest kids on campus.
“He could throw the ball, but he was getting lit up like the Fourth of July,” Nieto recalled. “He was a super worker and athletic and had quickness to his arm, but his (fastball) was straight as a string and everyone was teeing off on it.”
Nieto then suggested to Beck that they “Muckey” him up.
That was in reference to Crespi baseball coach Scott Muckey, who Nieto said has a knack for turning ordinary pitchers into special submarine-style or sidearm pitchers that have had great success.
Nieto thought Berg was the perfect candidate.
“David was limber and when we tried it he had that whip,” Nieto said. “But it didn’t come easy. He kept messing with it and messing with it. Like anything at first, it was awkward but like anything you have to allow your heart to be into it to have a chance.
“Anyone that knows David knows he has the heart of a champion and once he committed, he and Beck worked their magic.”
It wasn’t always smooth sailing.
During a game against Mission Viejo his junior season, Berg had an 0-2 count on a batter when he reverted back to overhand and watched the Diablos hitter knock a home run out of the park.
It was one of only nine innings Berg threw that season.
“I went straight to the mound and said if you come over-the-top again we’re going to cut you,” Nieto said. “I gave him the old Bull Durham line. I said anything that travels that far should have a stewardess on it.
“From that point on he was a submariner and by the time his senior year had arrived, he had perfected it.”
Had he ever.
Berg was the unsung hero of Amat’s CIF-Southern Section Division 4 championship run in 2011, pitching in practically every game.
He came out of nowhere to finish 6-0 with a 1.05 ERA in 46 innings. He pitched the final inning at Dodger Stadium to cement a 7-0 victory over Palm Desert for the title.
His greatest moment, however, came in Amat’s 5-4 semifinal comeback victory over Torrance. After the Lancers fell behind 4-0 through two innings, Berg took over in the third and threw five shutout innings to allow the Lancers to rally for the win.
“He was our salvation,” Nieto said. “David Berg proved that when you have an open mind and you pour your heart and soul into something, you can accomplish anything.”
It was a great ending to a great high school story, but there weren’t many colleges chasing a high-school middle-relieving submariner with a mid-80s fastball.
What Berg had going for him, however, was that he was smart. He had a 4.2 GPA and could have continued his baseball career at Cal Lutheran, an NAIA school that would have offered him some financial assistance. Or he could have opted for a Division 2 or 3 school.
But Nieto knew UCLA coach John Savage from their days as assistant coaches with USC in the late 90s. Nieto suggested to Savage that Berg would be a great walk-on pick-up.
“I wouldn’t just recommend to recommend,” Nieto said. “If you’re going to use your connections to recommend a player, you better be up front. I believed in David, but once he got there, it was all his doing.”
Savage told Berg he would have a roster spot if he walked on at UCLA, but Berg also wanted to play, and wasn’t sure if a non-scholarship invitee would have much of an opportunity.
“It was a tough decision,” Berg recalled. “In your head you’re asking yourself do you give up the game you love to go to the school you always wanted to play for (UCLA), or go somewhere knowing you can continue to play.
“I just thought UCLA was the dream. It felt good in my heart, I knew I would be playing for a great coach (Savage) and that if I was on the team, I’d get an opportunity.”
All it took was a few months of practice with the Bruins to realize he made the right decision.
Now the kid Nieto called “Goldie” was on his way to becoming UCLA’s Golden Submarine.
“I didn’t expect to have a big amount of impact, but back in the fall I started working out with some of the guys and started getting some of them out,” Berg said. “We have one of the top offense’s in the country, I figured if I could get some of these guys out, I would be all right. My confidence just grew from there.”
Berg may wind up earning a scholarship after all, but that’s the furthest thought from his mind.
“All I’m thinking about is this weekend and having a chance to go to Omaha,” Berg said. “The fact that UCLA saw something in me and decided to give me a chance is good enough for me.”