UCLA's Berg emerging as local, national star
MAY 10, 2013 11:41a ET
He almost wondered what he was doing there talking to a coach, John Savage, with a College World Series on his resume.
“I’m sitting in a room with coach Savage who I had just met for the first time and I’m trying to act cool-breeze,” Berg said. “They offered me the recruited walk-on spot. I told coach Savage in office, because I had a couple other offers that I was considering, that I don’t want to make the decision on the spot, is it alright if I take another day.”
But playing it cool only worked for so long – about five minutes longer, to be exact.
“I walked out to the car with my parents and said, ‘This is where I want to go.’”
Now, Berg, a sophomore, is a member of the collegiate national team. He’s closing games for No. 8 UCLA and his miniscule 0.67 ERA leads the nation.
Berg renders some of college baseball’s heaviest hitters ineffective. He throws three pitches and while he isn’t overwhelming, his command is strong and location is spot-on.
As a walk-on freshman, Berg owned a Pac-12 best 1.46 ERA and .165 opposing batting average in 50 appearances, which was only one short of the NCAA single-season record.
Early last April, he went three and 2/3 innings against Oregon, striking out seven and absolutely flummoxing the Ducks’ hitters, leaving everyone to wonder where exactly Berg came from.
The emergence of Berg came seemingly out of nowhere. In 2010, Berg, the then-scrawny right-hander had a place on powerhouse La Puente Bishop Amat’s varsity roster – but barely. He pitched just nine innings and was still toying with his arm angle and throwing motion. Berg was admittedly ineffective at times and he never imaged being where he is now.
Although his numbers greatly improved in his senior season and he helped lead Bishop Amat to a CIF Championship, Berg’s only real offer at Division III Cal Lutheran wasn’t really an offer at all.
“I had an academic scholarship,” Berg said. “I had called the coach and my (high school) coach called the coach. My coach was trying to tell people, ‘This kid can play.’ He was calling this coach and the coach basically said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll get you a tryout.’”
Berg finished his senior season 7-1 with a 1.05 ERA and four saves. He was named first-team All-CIF Southern Section Division IV and first-team all Del Rey League. But offers were still few and far between and Berg was still available late in the recruitment period. T.J. Bruce, UCLA’s recruiting coordinator, saw something in Berg that he felt was worth taking a chance on. John Savage was convinced the moment he met the sidewinder.
“Winner,” Savage said. “We brought him in, we loved his makeup, his energy his awareness… You just had a feeling that this guy was going to bring a lot to your program.”
What Berg brought has been invaluable for the Bruins. As a freshman, he held leads down a crucial stretch and appeared in nearly every game of UCLA's postseason run right up through their College World Series performance in Omaha, Neb. Berg defied odds by becoming one of only a few freshmen to ever be selected to Team USA, a selection that he says “dumbfounded” him initially.
Off the mound, Berg has made a lasting impression as well.
It’s hard to precisely describe Berg’s personality. He’s demonstrative and emotional when he speaks, yet poised and concise at the same time. During the Haarlem-Honkbal Baseball Week event in The Netherlands over the summer, Berg performed as “Upside-Down Man” during a rain delay.
“I’m not the top goof but I’ve definitely got that in me,” Berg said. “We want to win but let’s have some fun.”
Savage realized that just simply letting Berg be Berg is the key to his success. Berg might be young but he as sure of himself as a pitcher as he is as a person and it’s effective.
“You look at what he’s done in about 90 appearances, I’m not really looking for a whole lot more,” Savage said. “You can get stronger and you can throw harder and I guess personal development but at the end of the day, you talk in terms of what he brings, he doesn’t need to bring anything more than what he’s bringing.
“We don’t want him to become somebody else; it’s fun watching him being him.”
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