By Joe Foreman
OMAHA, Neb. – Scott Sitz picked the perfect time to turn in the strongest pitching performance of his career.
The junior righty limited No. 2-seeded UCLA to one run in 6 2/3 innings of work Tuesday night to spark Florida State to a 4-1 victory over the Bruins in an elimination game at the NCAA College World Series. The No. 3-seeded Seminoles (50-16) stay alive in the double-elimination tournament and will get a rematch with Arizona on Thursday at 5 p.m. (EDT). The Wildcats defeated FSU, 4-3, in 12 innings in the opening round of CWS play Friday night. Arizona is 2-0 in the CWS. The Seminoles must beat the Wildcats twice — Thursday and Friday — to advance to the CWS Championship Series.
In his longest outing of the season, Sitz relied on his breaking ball to stymie the Bruin batters. He retired the first nine hitters he faced, but his most impressive feat came in the sixth inning after UCLA (48-16) plated a run and still had the bases loaded with no outs. Sitz worked his way out of the jam by striking out the next three Bruins – Jeff Gelalich (UCLA’s top hitter), Trevor Brown and Pat Valaika.
“No question, the sixth inning was the big inning that Scotty showed that his nickname is evident because he was the bulldog,” FSU coach Mike Martin said. “You get the bases loaded against a team as talented as UCLA and get a run in and get out of it is just a credit to him. We knew there were still nine outs left, but at the same time, it was a tremendous lift for us.”
Sitz was visibly filled with emotion as he hopped, skipped and jumped his way to the dugout after striking out Valaika.
“They (the coaches) stuck with me and after the third strikeout, I don’t think I’ve ever been more pumped in my life,” Sitz said. “It was just a great feeling to get those three outs. That was probably the best I’ve thrown my breaking ball all year."
Sitz's performance drew the praise of UCLA coaches and players.
“We’ve got to tip our hat to their pitcher,” Bruins leadoff hitter Beau Amaral said. “He was in a tight spot and we had our opportunity to kind of get back in the game. We got one run, but he definitely shut us down and made some good pitches against us.”
With Sitz keeping the Bruin batters in check, the Seminoles hitters were utilizing the walk and bunt to generate some offensive support.
Leadoff hitter Sherman Johnson, who scored the Seminoles' first run of the night after earning a walk, said being patient at the plate is part of the FSU gameplan.
“That’s always our approach as hitters,” Johnson said. “Of course, we’re more patient than most teams, and it worked out today. We got walked and luckily it turned into runs for us.”
The Seminoles, who lead the nation in walks, picked up eight Tuesday night.
“I don’t think we’ve walked that many in quite a while,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “They don’t chase and we weren’t in the zone, and that’s a lethal combination.”
FSU scored its other two runs in the fourth inning, thanks to an unexpected bases-loaded bunt from cleanup hitter Jayce Boyd. An errant throw home on the bunt by UCLA third baseman Kevin Kramer allowed Johnson to score from third and Devon Travis to come home from second.
“I’d been struggling at the plate a little bit. I haven’t gotten very good swings on the ball,” Boyd said. “I don’t even think the pitch that I bunted was anywhere near the strike zone. I just tried to lay down a good bunt, get it down the third base line so the pitcher couldn’t field it. We got two runs across out of it and we got two runners in scoring position after that.”
Boyd’s bunt came as a surprise to nearly everyone at TD Ameritrade Park, including his coach.
“Man, I’d love to take credit for that, but I have nothing to do with it,” Martin said. “Jayce did it on his own. Devon read the play and did a great job of getting to the plate.”
The Seminoles said they’re excited about staying alive in the tournament and looking forward to having another shot at Arizona.
“They’re a great team and we know that,” Johnson said. “We’re going to try to play better than we did the first time we played them. We’ll stay with our same approach with batters and pitching-wise, but I think we’ll try to play a better overall game.”
Martin confirmed Tuesday night that freshman southpaw Brandon Leibrandt will start on the mound against Arizona. Leibrandt was FSU's starter in the CWS opener against the Wildcats, and gave up three runs and six hits in 4 1/3 innings of work in that outing.
The Seminoles improved to 28-41 all-time in CWS play and 7-12 all-time at the tournament against teams from the Pac-12 Conference. ... With the win, FSU clinched its first two-win tournament at the CWS since 2000. ...FSU, which leads the nation in walks, has drawn 16 so far in the CWS. ...The Seminoles bullpen has a 1.82 ERA in NCAA Tournament play. ... FSU has now won 50 games in a season for the 24th time in school history ... Arizona will be the home team when the Wildcats and Seminoles square off Thursday.