FULLERTON — For the first time in school history, UCLA has punched back-to-back trips to Omaha.
With a 3-0 win over Super Regional host Cal State Fullerton on Saturday, the Bruins are headed to the College World Series for the third time in four years. Coach John Savage — who over nine years became the architect of a national power — earned his 27th postseason victory, setting a new UCLA record.
“I couldn’t be any prouder of our program,” he said.
Beginning with a three-run outburst at Goodwin Field, the Bruins opened up enough room to sweep the Titans — seeded No. 5 nationally. CSUF hadn’t lost a series all spring, but made crucial blunders with its season on the line.
Freshman Thomas Eshelman, who entered the game with a 1.59 ERA, initially appeared in peak form — retiring his first two batters with five pitches. UCLA starter Nick Vander Tuig had opened the game with a 1-2-3 inning; Fullerton’s ace was poised to follow suit.
But as first baseman Carlos Lopez tried to field a routine grounder, the ball bounced off his glove and arced over him. Eric Filia stepped safely on base.
Fullerton (51-10) kept giving. After a hard liner to third put runners on first and second, a throwing error loaded the bases. Facing two outs, UCLA’s Pat Gallagher — last week named the Los Angeles Regional’s most outstanding player — laced a 2-RBI single to center field.
Another hit up the middle plated another Bruin before the inning finally ended. The Titans, who outscored opponents 65-15 in first innings on the season, suddenly faced an early 3-0 deficit.
“That’s all we needed,” Savage said. “That’s all we got the whole evening. It was enough to beat a very good team”
Vander Tuig flustered the Titans for the rest of the night. He wasn’t unhittable, but finished with four strikeouts and no walks through 6 1/3 innings. Touching 91 on the radar gun, he worked his way out of the few jams he faced — logging his third strikeout to strand runners on second and third in the fourth inning.
“Throw strikes and make pitches, let your defense work for you,” he said. “After the three runs, I just wanted to make sure I didn’t get too ahead of myself.”
In the seventh, Fullerton tried subbing in left-handed batter Clay Williamson — .149 on the season — for a different look against the UCLA righty. He popped out.
After that, Vander Tuig headed toward the dugout to standing ovations from the blue-heavy crowd in right field. Drafted in the sixth round Friday by the San Francisco Giants, his collegiate career is likely nearing its end.
Freshman James Kaprielian walked onto the mound in relief duty, but walked his first batter. He recovered by forcing a groundout and flyout to end the seventh — stranding runners on second and third.
“I think he grew up tonight,” Savage said.
Zack Weiss came in and forced two outs, but made way for closer David Berg after giving up back-to-back singles. The Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year forced the groundout, then got three more in the ninth for his 21st save of the season.
By the end, the Titans had left a dozen runners on base.
Despite little run support, Eshelman was strong for the Titans, allowing just three hits after the first inning. Through eight frames, the freshman ace struck out five and walked one. None of the Bruins’ three runs were earned.