David Berg appeared in the last 18 baseball games of UCLA’s regular season.
That kind of streak is nothing special if you’re a position player, or filling in as a defensive replacement.
But Berg is a relief pitcher — and is a freshman who isn’t even on scholarship.
“The 18 in a row is staggering to me,” he said.
Coach John Savage, whose team will play Creighton on Friday night in an NCAA regional opener, calls Berg “a savior.”
How Berg became such an invaluable player for a team that was co-champion of the Pac-12 Conference and is seeded No. 2 nationally stems from his decision to change his pitching delivery. Berg began throwing sidearm during his junior year at La Puente Bishop Amat High, when he pitched only nine innings.
“I wasn’t anything special,” he recalled. “There’s a ton of guys who can throw 82 miles per hour over the top, so there was no one looking for me to play college baseball. I was looking for anything to push me to that next level.”
He’s special now. On Wednesday, the Pac-12 announced its all-conference selections and Berg was one of only two freshmen selected to the first team.
It was his high school pitching coach, Chris Beck, who suggested that Berg drop his arm slot to the side, and he began to master the technique during his senior year. He helped Bishop Amat win the Southern Section Division 4 championship, going 7-1 with a 1.05 earned-run average.
“It’s worked wonders for me,” Berg said of the change. “It’s been amazing.”
But by the time colleges starting paying attention, it was so late in the season that most were out of scholarship money. He was recruited to UCLA as a walk-on.
“He’s a winner and the guy has special presence,” Savage said. “I felt that the first time I met him. He has no fear. He’ll go up against anybody anywhere.”
Berg has made a school- and conference-record 43 appearances — the team has played 56 games — going into the Bruins’ NCAA tournament opener at Jackie Robinson Stadium. He has a record of 5-3 and a 1.79 ERA, with 51 strikeouts and 15 walks in 601/3 innings.
Since Savage began coaching at the Division I level in 1991, he said, he has never had a pitcher quite like Berg. Savage helped coach Jack Krawczyk, who set a record for saves in 1998 at USC with 23, and briefly coached Blair Erickson, who had an NCAA-record 53 career saves at UC Irvine.
But they were big, powerfully built closers. Berg is 6 feet and 190 pounds.
“I have not had a submarine-type guy in my career,” Savage said. “This is unique in terms of his delivery and ability to bounce back.”
Berg is a middle reliever, a position much in demand in the major leagues and equally important in college baseball. Typically, the seventh is his inning.
Last weekend, he pitched the seventh inning of all three games against USC, getting seven of his nine outs by strikeout and striking out the side twice.
And because his throwing motion doesn’t put a lot of stress on his arm or elbow, he’s available to pitch almost every game.
“It’s a lot easier to bounce back,” Berg said. “There’s not as much force on the shoulder blade.”
In the month of May, Berg pitched in games on 16 out of 27 days.
“It’s tons of fun,” he said. “I’m almost like a position player. I get to play every day. I love it.”