David Berg closing out a great career at UCLA

David Berg closing out a great career at UCLA
UCLA reliever David Berg delivers a pitch in the ninth inning of a 1-0 Bruins win over Long Beach State on Feb. 24. (Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

David Berg looked out on his field of dreams and didn't see his moments. He saw teammates.

The view from the bullpen at Jackie Robinson Stadium was comforting to UCLA's senior closer, who has the look of a Cirque du Soleil contortionist when he pitches but comes straight at you when he talks.

Berg's side-winding delivery has baffled batters for four seasons, during which he has gone from relatively unknown freshman to one of the top closers in NCAA history.

This day, though, was not about accolades and laurels. Berg scanned the field, where many of the Bruins were still working out, and reminisced.


"I think about the practices and the off-days we had here," Berg said. "All the different things we do here, not necessarily the games. Sure, certain games stick out, the walk-offs, the big series sweeps. But mostly I remember days like today, when no one is watching."

Those days, like so many of the games Berg has pitched in, are about to be closed out.

UCLA faces Cal State Bakersfield at home in Los Angeles Regional of the NCAA tournament Friday at 8 p.m. Maryland and Clemson play in the first game at 4 p.m.

By the end of the weekend, the top-seeded Bruins will either be moving on to the super regional or be packing up their equipment. Berg figures to have a considerable say in what path the Bruins take.

In four seasons, Berg has accumulated 48 saves, five short of the NCAA record held by UC Irvine's Blair Erickson. Berg is 7-1 with an earned-run average of 0.73 and 12 saves this season.

Yet, by appearances, he is the anti-closer. He neither scowls at batters nor stalks behind the mound between pitches. His fastball works hard to break 85 mph. He is pleasant, answering questions about himself by talking about teammates.

"Senior day we were talking about this being the end," Berg said. "Justin [Hazard], Kevin [Kramer], Chris [Keck] and I were roommates together as freshmen. Move-in day seems like it was yesterday. It's crazy to think that was four years ago and see how far those guys have come to become the players they are."

The same could be said of Berg, though he twists away from that as if he is delivering a pitch. "I set those goals because I knew if I accomplished them it means the team is in a good situation," he said.

Underneath that "ah-shucks" shell lurks the personality of a closer.

"I think teams take a different approach to me now than they did two years ago, just based on my reputation," Berg said. "Guys know I'm not going walk them. They're going to have to hit me to beat me, so guys are coming up there aggressive. I use that to my advantage, attacking the corners instead of having to using the plate."

Berg has built that rep the last three seasons.

He arrived as an add-on recruit four years ago, a pitcher from La Puente Bishop Amat High who garnered little interest from Division I schools. But when he visited UCLA, he impressed Coach John Savage.

"His character was off the charts," Savage said, even if his fastball wasn't.

Berg spent his freshman season as a setup man, appearing in 50 games, and was ticketed for the same role as a sophomore. But closer James Kaprielian went down with an injury, and Berg set an NCAA season record with 24 saves.

"I did a good job that year of not making the closer role a big deal in my head," Berg said. "Now I'm comfortable in that role."

It's others who are uncomfortable. Berg's sidearm delivery, which he began using in high school, can keep batters off-balance.

"It's a different perspective, different look," Savage said. "His ball runs in. Then he throws a sinker that runs away. It's kind of a Y-shape, like a yield sign. It causes confusion to the hitter."

Said Berg: "That's the idea, creating deception. With the movement it creates, it is never easy for them to barrel up."

Berg saved 11 games last season, but was limited to 31 games because of a biceps injury. He was drafted in the 17th round by the Texas Rangers, but chose to return to UCLA for his senior season because, "It's something special to be a part of college baseball. Even more, it's something special to be at UCLA. Taking it a step further, playing for Coach Savage is special, and I loved all the guys coming back and I knew it would be an incredible opportunity."

That's Berg's off-duty "Kumbaya" personality. But make no mistake, when it's time to do his job, that red-meat closer instinct takes hold.

"I know that I have been here 150 times at the end of games, where the other guys have to get a big hit and try to find a way to score runs," Berg said. "They only get to do that once in every 10 games, maybe 20 games. I have been out there so many times, I don't get sped up by the situation. I put the pressure on the hitter. I continue to make pitches knowing that guy is more nervous."

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