N.C. State vs. UCLA at Cary 4:30 p.m.

College baseball's best on display as Pack faces UCLA

calexander@newsobserver.comFebruary 28, 2014 

— It’s possible the best starting pitcher, relief pitcher and position player in college baseball will be on the same field Saturday at the USA Baseball complex.

N.C. State lefthander Carlos Rodon will start against UCLA, the defending NCAA champion. Trea Turner will be at shortstop for the sixth-ranked Wolfpack, and Dave Berg will be in No. 19 UCLA’s bullpen.

The game, which is schedule for 4:30 p.m., is a part of the Irish Classic hosted by Notre Dame. But when the two teams faced each other last June it was in a far different setting with far more significance.

It was the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. It was the game after Rodon and the Wolfpack topped North Carolina 8-1 in their series opener.

With UCLA leading 2-1 in the eighth inning, Turner came to bat with two runners on and Berg on the mound. Turner took a big rip; the ball headed deep to left field.

“I told myself to be early and swing underneath the ball, because he has some downward action on his fastball as a submariner,” Turner said Friday after the Pack’s 3-0 win against Michigan at Doak Field in Raleigh. “He threw me a first-pitch fastball, I put a good swing on it.”

Berg on Thursday called it a “bad pitch,” but said that initially he didn’t think Turner got enough of it.

“Then I turned and it was like, ‘Oh, no, did he just do that?’” Berg said. “Once I started watching it, I got scared.”

Turner thrust out his right fist, then started clapping. N.C. State coach Elliott Avent bounded out of the dugout. But UCLA left fielder Christoph Bono, a defensive replacement, made an over-the-shoulder catch on the warning track a few feet from the wall.

UCLA won the game 2-1 and was on its way to a national championship. Berg, a right-hander with a sidearm delivery, set an NCAA single-season record with 24 saves and was named the National Collegiate Baseball Writers AssociationStopper of the Year as the nation’s top relief pitcher.

N.C. State returned to Raleigh wondering what might have been had Turner’s drive been just a little longer or the TD Ameritrade Park fences a little closer.

“We win the national championship if we win that game, no doubt in my mind,” Avent said Friday.

Just after the CWS, Berg joined the USA Collegiate National Team, which included Turner and Rodon. Asked if he and Turner talked very much about that fateful at-bat in Omaha, Berg laughed.

“Trea? Do we ever talk about anything else?” he said. “They were a great team and didn’t get the necessary bounces to succeed in Omaha like we did. It’s obviously something he wants a little bit of revenge for.”

Turner, Berg and Rodon also were teammates on the USA collegiate team in 2012, after their freshman seasons. They became good friends, adding even more to the Turner-Berg confrontation in Omaha.

“It was the College World Series, but at the same time you’re facing a buddy where you know there’s going to be some bragging rights on it,” Berg said. “I got a little excited and gave him a pretty good pitch and he gave it a good ride.”

Berg said Rodon texted him this week to say he would be pitching Saturday for the Wolfpack. Berg noted that he saw Rodon at his best last summer when the power-pitching lefty struck out 11 and allowed two hits in 6 2/3 scoreless innings against Cuba in a July game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

“It was just one of those nights where you had everything working and you could throw whatever you wanted up there and they couldn’t hit it,” Rodon said.

The U.S. won 5-3 to sweep the five-game series against the Cubans and finish 20-3 for the summer.

“That was a Cuban team I had seen a lot over the two years,” Berg said. “No one ever dominated their lineup, one through nine, like he did that night. It was impressive to watch. You knew there was something special going on.”

Many believe Rodon, an intimidating presence on the mound at 6-foot-3 and 234 pounds, will be the Houston Astros’ choice with the No. 1 pick of the Major League Baseball draft. Turner also could be a high draft pick. Berg’s status is more in question.

The Bruins won last year’s championship with pitching and defense, hitting a meager .250 as a team. Even UCLA coach John Savage called their style of play grueling and “hard to watch” at times during a 49-17 season.

The Bruins (5-4), who beat Notre Dame 2-1 Friday, were picked to finish third in the Pac-12 this season.

“You’re never going to get somebody’s bad game,” Berg said of his team’s status as the reigning national champions. “Teams come at you with 100 percent energy.”

That should be N.C. State Saturday. Avent said the decision to pitch Rodon was made because junior Logan Jernigan, the starter and winner against Michigan, pitched against the Bruins in Omaha. Avent said he didn’t want UCLA to see the same pitcher twice.

“We’re looking forward to the challenge,” Turner said. “We’ll see who comes out on top this time.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip

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