OMAHA, Neb. — LSU and UCLA were the first two teams to qualify for the College World Series on June 8.
They’ve been hanging around here for three days, waiting for their chance to face off in the final game of the first round. Mississippi State, Oregon State, Indiana and Louisville got back to work Saturday, and North Carolina and N.C. State will precede the Tigers and Bruins on Sunday at TD Ameritrade Park.
Finally at 7 p.m., they get their chance as LSU officially ends a three-year absence from the CWS and UCLA starts its third appearance in four seasons.
“You want to get out there so bad,” LSU shortstop Alex Bregman said. “You want to be playing, and you see everybody else playing and having so much fun. But it’s going to be worth the wait. We’re going to get after it.”
After three practices in two different stadiums, multiple autograph sessions, an opening ceremony and a bunch of news conferences, it’s finally time to play ball.
“It’s been a blur,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said before practice Saturday.
These teams have much in common besides the long wait. Both have used excellent pitching and defense and adequate hitting to roll through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament undefeated.
The Tigers, who have the best record (57-9) among the eight teams in this field, have outscored their five opponents 36-14. The Bruins (44-17) have outscored theirs 25-10.
“It needs to be a detailed game, a clean game if you’re going to have a chance to win,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “If you are sloppy defensively or base running or not throwing strikes, then more than likely you’re going to have a difficult time.”
Both teams seem perfectly suited to the reduced offense that has permeated college baseball in recent seasons, which should serve them well in spacious TD Ameritrade.
LSU’s team ERA is 2.41, and UCLA’s is 2.69. Both teams have the best fielding percentage (.980) among the CWS participants and fifth-best in the country this season.
“Their pitching has been the hallmark of the program at UCLA,” Mainieri said.
Both teams will be sending their top pitchers — two of the best in the country — to the mound. The Tigers start All-America right-hander Aaron Nola (12-0, 1.68 ERA), and the Bruins counter with righty Adam Plutko (8-3, 2.35).
It’s reminiscent of the matchup in Game 1 of the Baton Rouge Super Regional on June 7, when Nola outdueled Oklahoma ace Jonathan Gray in a 2-0 victory.
“I relish this a lot,” Nola said. “This is a fun game for me, just like last week. It’s not going to be a high-scoring game, and you know you’re going to have to battle to the end. You have to throw up as many zeroes as you can.”
LSU has won all but one of the 16 games that Nola, a sophomore from Catholic High School, has started this season.
“From being a sophomore, to have not lost this time of the year, to go through the Southeastern Conference and to pitch on the road like he has and against opponents that he has,” Savage said, “he’s going to be as good as anybody that we’ve faced all year.”
Nola has not allowed an unearned run in 15 postseason innings.
“I’ve always been calm,” Nola said. “I try to keep my composure as well as possible. I try not to get too hyped up where I could lose focus.”
Plutko, like Nola, has been at his best when the stakes have been the highest. He is 7-1 with a 1.18 ERA in his past nine starts and is 6-0 with a 0.81 ERA in five career postseason starts. His 27 career victories rank second in UCLA history.
The one area where there is a disparity between the teams is hitting. LSU is batting .308, and UCLA is at .251.
LSU has hit 46 home runs and is averaging 6.6 runs. UCLA has hit 19 home runs and is averaging 4.8 runs.
“We better be sharp or else,” Savage said, “because the three-run homer is not around the corner.”
The Tigers hope to have their batting order intact and healthy for the first time in a month. Leadoff hitter Sean McMullen (hamstring) and No. 2 hitter Mark Laird (ankle) both appear to be healthy, and second baseman JaCoby Jones returned to practice on a limited basis Saturday after sitting out Friday with flu-like symptoms.
Sunday night’s winner will play the North Carolina-N.C. State winner at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Sunday’s losers meet in an elimination game at 2 p.m. Tuesday.