IRVINE, Calif. - David Berg leaned against the visitor's dugout railing at Anteater Ballpark and gestured to the sun-soaked field and the home clubhouse on the other side of the diamond. This could have been home for Berg.
"I was within seconds of signing to come to UCI," Berg said. "I came here, took a campus visit, and I loved it. I was really excited."
Berg had just finished helping powerhouse Bishop Amat High School win a state title as a senior reliever. His prep career was over - but he still was not committed to a college. His high school coach, Andy Nieto, won a College World Series title as a member of Southern California's coaching staff in 1998, where he worked on the same staff as Mike Gillespie (now at UC Irvine) and John Savage (now at UCLA). Nieto vouched for Berg's character and told Gillespie and Savage that Berg could compete at the Division I level. His strong work in the CIF playoffs also impressed the coaching staffs at UCI and UCLA, but nobody else wanted him.
Berg could take a scholarship offer from Irvine, or he could accept a non-scholarship roster spot at UCLA. At the time, nobody could have guessed that his decision would play a crucial role in helping UCLA emerge as a national superpower. That overlooked sidewinder with the 82 mph fastball went on to become the greatest closer in the history of college baseball.
Back in the summer of 2011, Berg's father convinced him to at least visit UCLA before committing to Irvine.
"I went to visit UCLA about two days later, and once again my dad's like, 'All right, you've got to at least go home and think about it, you can't just immediately commit to UCLA,' " Berg recalled. "But I walked out of Coach Savage's office, and on the way to the car I told my parents, 'I don't think I really need to think about this, this is where I want to be. This is the program that's a national title contender year in and year out.' It was the year Gerrit (Cole) and Trevor (Bauer) got drafted first and third overall. I just realized the program was on the up and up and really had good things in store for it. I've just been happy to be a part of that and create a tradition that's going to last here."
It was just a perfect fit. UCLA recruiting coordinator T.J. Bruce saw Berg first, in a CIF playoff game, and walked away impressed.
"T.J. said, 'You know what? I think this guy can help us. I think this guy can get people out. I don't know, he doesn't throw very hard, he's 82 miles an hour, but he's competitive, and it's a different look,' " Savage recalled. "So I went over and saw him in a doubleheader at USC, during a summer game, and all he did in the first game was he was into the game - he was the only guy into the game, and he wasn't playing. And it wasn't fake, it wasn't because I was in the stands or anything like that. I'm like, 'Hm.' You don't see that too often nowadays. Then the second game he pitched and he was good - he wasn't eye-popping, he wasn't earth-shattering, but he was solid. Then I met with him and I knew we wanted him. He just had that pedigree about him that you want in your program."
Berg is an outstanding student whose intelligence translates to the baseball field. His savvy instantly appealed to Savage, who is famously detail-oriented and unwaveringly focused.
"He could be playing catch, and we have a line of guys playing catch and a guy misses the ball four rows down from him, and he's going to get the ball. He'll know how many pitches a guy threw in the bullpen, sitting there," Savage said. "His awareness is as good as I've ever seen anybody have. I noticed that when we recruited him. He just had that motor to him, that high intensity about him, that I knew he wanted to be a winner, and he wanted to be part of a winning program. It just hit right, it just hit right. It's really a credit to him."
Before David Berg set the NCAA's single-season saves record (24) and tied the single-season appearances record (51) in 2013, before he set the all-time NCAA record for career appearances (170 and counting), before he helped lead his team to Omaha (twice - and counting) and before he became a College World Series champion, he was just kid trying to compete for innings on his high school team. As a junior with a standard high slot, Berg's stuff was pedestrian, and he struggled to get innings for a loaded Bishop Amat team that also featured future San Diego Torero Paul Paez and future Stony Brook Seawolves Brandon McNitt and Daniel Zamora.
Berg knew he needed to try something different to stand out. One day during that junior year, he was doing his flat-ground work and made some throws from a sidearm slot, just messing around.
"My coach saw me and said, 'Hey, that's pretty good. You might want to try something like that,' " Berg said. "I always had that feel to be able to throw from down there, I always had some movement, but it's obviously different throwing on flat ground, messing around when there's no consequences, than having to get on the mound and actually do it. The fastball was really natural for me. The slider was the one that was really hard to develop. That took me over a year to even get close."
Berg always liked to drop down and throw sidearm even when he was a little kid, but his travel ball coaches discouraged it because they did not want him to get hurt, he said. So when he finally did make the change as a high school junior, he took to it quickly. He threw eight scoreless innings out of the bullpen after dropping down that year, and then he got shelled by future UCLA teammate Eric Filia's Edison High team in his final appearance of the year. He entered the game with a two-run lead and gave up an eight-spot, and then he had to sit around thinking about it in the offseason.
He spent the offseason learning to repeat his delivery and throw strikes with his fastball, and incorporating a Frisbee slider into his repertoire. Berg said his trademark fastball life comes naturally to him because of his arm action. "My arm does pronate at that last moment of release, which gives it that top-spin motion, gives it that movement," he said. "But it has something to do with the grip as well, because I can change the grips to different things to make it do different things - going left to right, more two-seamer action, or going up and down with that sinker action."
It clicked for him as a senior, when he went 7-1, 1.05 with four saves and a 59-5 strikeout-walk mark in 47 innings. That's pretty dominant, but a lot of players dominate at the high school level. It seems impossible that any pitcher could perform at that level over the course of four years in the Pac-12, but that's just what Berg did. Check out the career line: 21-6 with a microscopic 1.16 ERA in 257 innings over 170 appearances. He has 48 career saves and a 230-41 strikeout-walk mark.
"I think he'll go down as the best ever. I really do. I feel very strong about that," Savage said. "In terms of the league that we play in, the region that we play in, the competition that we play. Everybody knows him, they've seen him, they think they've picked his pitches - you name it. And still, nobody can really do anything about it. It's really remarkable, and we don't take him for granted. Anybody can lose a game, anybody can get hit, and we know that. But this guy has been as good as there is to have ever played the game."
He was good right away as a freshman, throwing 74 innings over 50 appearances in a middle relief role for an Omaha team. That year, Savage taught him to focus on pounding the bottom of the zone with his sinker and slider, but not to worry too much about trying to locate at the corners. They worked hard on developing consistent mechanics, looking at video and still frames of pitches he executed and pitches he didn't, and pointing out the inconsistencies.
"It was really just getting to that next level of pitching, of seeing the mechanics, seeing what was wrong, pointing it out to me," Berg said. "Just developing that consistency of mechanics, my front side, my landing foot, my timing. I used to be really, really, really fast to the plate. I'd be sub-1 (second), sometimes even .9 - I was lightning, it was literally pick it up and get it there as quick as I could. I'm still quick to the plate, but it's slowed down quite a bit just so I can consistently have that rhythm to the plate, where it's a slight back-kick and go."
Berg was a quick study. His intelligence and work ethic allowed him to absorb what Savage taught him and apply it. Berg calls Savage "a wizard" who knows how to bring out the best in his pitchers, whether they have big raw stuff or not.
But even Savage didn't know just what he had in Berg. In the early weeks of Berg's sophomore year in 2013, power-armed freshman James Kaprielian was the closer. Kaprielian was sidelined with some soreness, and Berg filled in for him at the back of the bullpen. After a game against Washington in March, Savage sat in his office and said, "Berg's pitched very well as the closer, but you talk about power stuff, big stuff, put-away stuff - (Kaprielian) has capabilities of that, and as a closer we need that. Bergy's done a remarkable job, who's kidding who? But he's a setup guy."
That season, he went on to set the single-season saves record and post a 0.92 ERA. Savage remembers the comment - which he made right when "everything turned," as he put it.
"He was really the setup guy, and we weren't sure if he could even handle that. Then he closed a couple games, and literally history was in progress," Savage said. "It's just a remarkable story. Irvine was the only team that offered him, 25 percent. We offered him a roster spot. And he's just taken the ball and completely ran with it like no other player I've ever seen.
"His durability, his repeatability, his desire to want the ball every night, his competitiveness, his ability to make tough pitches in big situations. He outlasts a lot of hitters. You'll see battles where, 'Boy, he could be in trouble here.' It's 3-2, then it's three foul balls in a row, then it's a strikeout or a ground ball. He needs his defense, but there's a lot more strikeouts than people realize, and if you look at the numbers, he's really been a groundball and strikeout machine."
As good as Berg has been for four years, he is having his best season as a junior. In 57 innings over 38 appearances, Berg has a 0.79 ERA and a 54-5 strikeout-walk mark. The Bruins haven't had a ton of save opportunities for him, but he has converted all 12 of his save chances and compiled a 6-1 record. Every week, he seems to add to his remarkable legacy. Two weeks ago at Arizona State, Berg threw six innings in a 17-inning marathon, giving up just one run (the first earned run he has allowed in conference play). A week later against Arizona, he threw the final inning in a combined no-hitter with Kaprielian.
"I've never seen a no-hitter in person. To actually be able to be a part of it, because James was kind of running up there in pitch count - I was just happy to be able to finish it off for him, because he deserved every bit of it," Berg said. "He's one of the hardest working people I've ever seen. It was just a really special moment. Me and him are really close off the field as well, so the fact that we'll be able to share this forever is really special."
Berg said the kinship he feels with his teammates was a big reason he decided to return for his senior year rather than sign with the Rangers as a 17th-round pick. His junior year was really the first time Berg had ever dealt with injury; he missed chunks of time in April and May due to a bicep injury, one of numerous key injuries that torpedoed UCLA's season. The Bruins wound up going 12-18 in the Pac-12 and 25-30 overall, but Berg knew the team had a chance to be special again in 2015, and he wanted to be part of it. UCLA's injuries last year also made him realize that a career in baseball is fragile, and he wanted to complete his degree so he'd have that to fall back on if his playing days were cut short unexpectedly.
And his appreciation for history played a role, too.
"It's part of the reason I came back. I knew I'd already left my mark as a very good college closer, but coming back this year would really cement a legacy for myself," he said. "I just realized the opportunity that I had to come back and compete for another national championship. I knew the team coming back was going to be just as good as it is right now. Everything that's happening right now is exactly as expected.
"I thought about (signing) quite heavily. I considered it, considered it, and really talking it over with my parents, just recognizing the opportunity that was here, felt like I almost owed it to the program, because the opportunity that was afforded me to come here and play was so great, and it's helped me make something out of a baseball career, just giving me that opportunity to play pro ball."
Can you imagine that? After all he's done for UCLA, David Berg thought he owed it to the Bruins to come back for one last go-round.
It was the right decision, for many reasons. Berg's senior year has been one for the ages, and his Bruins look like one of the front-runners to win another national title. They know how lucky they are to have him around.
"We cherish him, and we're going to miss him, that's for sure," Savage said. "He's been the centerpiece of this thing for the last four years, and it's going to be tough to see him leave. We were fortunate to get him back for his senior year, and things hit right. Good things happen to good people, and this is the perfect case of a kid who's done a lot of things right."