In college baseball, with 35-player teams limited to 11.7 scholarships, walk-ons can become the unsung heroes of a successful program, and that’s the case for No. 2-seeded UCLA, which plays Stony Brook on Friday at 2 p.m. PDT in the opening game of the College World Series in Omaha.
Who knows where UCLA would have finished this season without the contributions of junior catcher Tyler Heineman and freshman pitchers David Berg and Grant Watson, all of whom chose to come to Westwood with no scholarship and only the promise of an opportunity to compete for playing time.
Heineman and Berg developed into All-Pac-12 Conference players this season, and Watson has a 9-2 record as the No. 4 starting pitcher. Each has carved out an important role, beating out more sought-after scholarship players. They’re examples of why UCLA Coach John Savage says recruiting is “not an exact science.”
“You just don’t know what you have,” Savage added. “Their character is so high. They have something to prove. It’s a meaningful lesson for all young players. If you don’t get recruited and have an opportunity, you can pave your own way.”
Walk-ons have proven to be important players for championship teams from Southern California. In 1998, when USC won its last NCAA baseball championship, walk-ons Morgan Ensberg and Jack Krawczyk played decisive roles.
In 2004, when Cal State Fullerton won a national championship, it was walk-on Kurt Suzuki delivering the game-winning hit.
“Everybody needs good players who aren’t on scholarship because there’s never enough scholarship money,” said UC Irvine Coach Mike Gillespie, who coached USC in 1998. “We presume sometimes every scholarship player is a great player. That doesn’t always happen. Maybe they aren’t quite ready, or guys get hurt. The truth is, every program has players who are not scholarship players who are very important.”
Heineman received few offers when he was playing high school baseball at Los Angeles Windward. He grew up dreaming of playing for UCLA and was offered a spot on the team.
“What they say is you have some particular skill set to help the team, but you’re not guaranteed any playing time or a chance to be on a team past a year,” Heineman said. “When I think back, I knew in my heart I could do it, but it was a matter of earning the trust of the coaches and showing what I could do.”
Heineman is one of UCLA’s top hitters, with a .343 batting average; he is respected by the pitching staff, and he was drafted in the eighth round by the Houston Astros.
Berg has made a school-record 47 relief appearances with a 1.58 earned-run average. He didn’t master his sidearm delivery until his senior year at La Puente Bishop Amat High, and by the time he became any kind of prospect most schools were out of scholarship money. But from the moment he arrived at UCLA in the fall, he impressed everyone.
“He’s a special kid,” sophomore pitcher Nick Vander Tuig said. “I was shocked during the fall how much confidence and awareness he had. He’s a freshman but doesn’t act like one. What he has become is great.”
Watson was an exceptional student at Bakersfield Centennial High and wanted the chance to play for the Bruins. He’s the only left-hander on the pitching staff, making him an invaluable player. And he was recently named to the Louisville Slugger freshman All-American team, along with Berg.
Said Heineman: “I know it’s hard for walk-ons to earn the trust of coaches because they don’t have money invested in you. You have to take it slow. But as I look back, it’s pretty rewarding.”