Before his professional career came to fruition, David Berg was a walk-on at UCLA with no scholarship offers.
And his pitching career was once in peril as a junior in high school.
Now, Berg is considered one of the most revered closers in NCAA Division I history with a slew of NCAA and Pac-12 records, and he’s establishing himself as a solid member of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans’ bullpen in his first professional season since being drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the sixth round (173rd overall) of the 2015 First-Year Player Draft.
“It was a really good opportunity to be able to go to UCLA; I was really excited. It was just where I really wanted to go school and when baseball came into the fold, it was just an incredible opportunity playing for coach [John Savage] there,” Berg said. “I really had a dream career [at UCLA] and I was really excited getting drafted by the Cubs in the sixth round and then coming out, already here in High A at Myrtle Beach in my first year of pro ball. I’m thrilled.”
Berg doesn’t have overpowering stuff with his fastball consistently reaching the mid 80s, but he’s one of the more unique pitchers as he keeps batters off-balance with his sidearm delivery.
And it all came about by chance.
Right before Berg’s junior year at La Puente Bishop Amat High School (Calif.), the varsity baseball team was loaded with talented arms and he didn’t think he was going to be able to pitch. One day during practice, he was messing around with the sidearm motion and coach Andy Nieto noticed it. The rest is history.
Berg used the unorthodox style of pitching during a preseason intrasquad scrimmage and struck out two of the team’s best hitters. He’s used the delivery ever since.
“It’s been a really cool opportunity because it kind of came out of accident; I wasn’t really trying to do anything with it,” Berg said. “[Nieto] saw it and was like, ‘Sure, why not try it out?’ So I kind of ran with the opportunity. I’ve been blessed with a lot of really good coaches and I’ve been around a lot of good people so I’ve kind of been able to use it to my advantage and get the most out of my situation.”
Fellow Pelican Jason Vosler said when he first got to Myrtle Beach after a call-up from Low-A South Bend (Ind.) on July 21 he was asked to catch in the bullpen with Berg.
Vosler, who has been an infielder his entire career, had no idea what he was about to get himself into.
“My very first day here I had to catch [in the bullpen] and I never really caught before,” Vosler said. “One of the pitchers I caught was Berg – he’s a really nasty pitcher – and I couldn’t even come close to catching him.”
Berg tends to fool most hitters, too.
First, though, he went through some trials and tribulations with the delivery. After one shaky outing during his junior year in high school, Berg didn’t get to pitch again for the remainder of the season. Berg tossed just 9 1/3 innings as a junior while learning to throw as a sidewinder and posted a 6.00 ERA with four walks and hit three batters.
He then worked during the offseason to perfect his delivery. In his senior season, Berg went 7-1 with four saves and a 1.05 ERA, recording 59 strikeouts and five walks in 47 innings pitching exclusively in relief to help Bishop Amat to a 29-4 record and a CIF championship at Dodger Stadium.
“I still didn’t really know what the hell I was doing; I thought I did, but I really didn’t,” Berg said of his senior season. “But at least I was just able to throw strikes by then.”
And despite a dominant senior season, Berg didn’t receive any scholarship offers. All he got was an academic grant from NCAA Division III California Lutheran.
Then, UCLA took a shot on Berg and gave him a chance as an add-on recruit.
It surely paid off.
Being a Bruin
After impressing Savage during a visit to the school, Berg spent his freshman season as a setup man and established the Pac-12 record for single-season appearances with 50 (all relief) while also leading the conference with a 1.46 ERA.
Berg – again expected to be the team’s setup man his sophomore year – wound up in a new role when closer James Kaprielian went down with an arm injury early on.
Berg served as the Bruins’ closer for the majority of the season and went on to set the NCAA Division I single-season record for most saves with 24. He also matched the NCAA single-season record for most appearances with 51.
Berg also became the first UCLA pitcher to lead the Pac-12 in ERA during back-to-back seasons, posting a 0.92 mark. He was the first reliever in conference history to be named Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year and was also the first UCLA pitcher ever to win the NCBWA Stopper of the Year Award, given out to the nation’s top relief pitcher.
By the time Kaprielian came back, the job was Berg’s.
“We thought it would just be for a week or two but he ended up being out a little bit longer than we expected,” Berg said. “Then when he finally was healthy and ready to come back, I had done such a good job that we figured just not mess with it, let me keep going and the rest is kind of history.”
In the same year that Berg took over as the team’s closer, the Bruins went on to win the College World Series and Berg recorded the final out in a title-clinching 8-0 win over Mississippi State in Omaha, Neb.
“That’s something that’s really special to me. Winning a national championship – whether you’re a bench player or you’re on the mound for the last pitch – no matter what, it’s really special,” Berg said. “Just being able to be out there for that last pitch and looking out and realizing – we were up 8-0 – that it was all but over before that last pitch. It was really cool; I got a second to look around and really embrace the moment. It was an incredibly fun time being in Omaha for two weeks and being part of that magical run. I mean, you’re standing there with a bunch of guys that were about to be national champions.”
Despite being slowed by an arm injury his junior year, Berg posted 11 saves with a 3-2 record and 1.50 ERA in 31 appearances. The Texas Rangers selected him in the 17th round of the MLB First-Year Player Draft in June 2014, but Berg chose to return for his senior season.
As a senior, Berg went 7-1 with a Pac-12 leading 0.68 ERA and 13 saves in a NCAA-high 43 appearances. He also combined with Kaprielian to post UCLA’s first-ever no-hitter, pitching a perfect 10th inning before the Bruins walked off to beat Arizona 1-0 on May 15.
“That was just another cool opportunity I had. I didn’t have to do anything extremely special to be a part of something really historic,” Berg said of the no-hitter. “I would’ve felt terrible if I didn’t finish off that no-hitter for James because he was just so incredible and he works so hard; it definitely felt good to finish it off for him.”
Berg pitched in a lot of big games during his four-year career at UCLA but he said it’s the bonds he formed and the moments he spent with his teammates that he’ll remember most.
“[What I’ll remember is] the bus rides, hanging out in the hotels and going out and doing all the fun stuff the cities had to offer,” he said. “Even just the off days at our home field where we all kind of spent a lot of time there just hanging out, relaxing and enjoying baseball.”
Berg finished his career with the NCAA record for appearances (175), tied for the most career saves (49) in Pac-12 history and posted the lowest career ERA (1.11) in UCLA history. Berg holds the program record for most postseason appearances (17) and most postseason saves (6) as well.
He also became the only two-time Stopper of the Year Award recipient, winning again in 2015, and pitched for the USA Collegiate National Team after his freshman and sophomore seasons as a Bruin.
“I was given a lot of opportunities; I don’t know how many closers in college baseball really get even 24 save opportunities in any given season,” Berg said. “So, just the fact I got so many opportunities is really why I have the record and playing for a team that pitches really well, plays great defense and wasn’t the best offensively we played in a lot of tight games so [there was] a lot of save opportunities for me. I’m just blessed enough to just complete them.”
To cap off a terrific college career, Berg was drafted in June by the Cubs 11 rounds higher than he was taken the year before.
Being a closer is one of baseball’s most pressure-packed jobs. But Berg does his best to confine his emotions, especially considering the hitters are also under the gun.
“In those situations, you obviously need to have your preparation right. But once you get out there, you need to just compete and not make the situation any bigger than it is,” Berg said. “The game can really speed up on you because there’s so much adrenaline and everything going on and the crowd is excited. You just need to make sure you control your emotions, be aggressive and go attack the hitter and never make the situation any bigger in your head than it really is.”
He’s done a good job since turning pro.
Splitting time between Class A short-season affiliate Eugene (Ore.) and Myrtle Beach, Berg has allowed just one walk while compiling a 1.80 ERA in 10 innings with three saves and nine strikeouts.
“It’s been great so far. All the guys I’ve met have been really cool and I really liked all the places I’ve gone,” said Berg, who spent time at the Cubs’ facility in Mesa, Arizona, following the draft. “In Arizona, the facility is beautiful. Then playing in Eugene, playing at the University of Oregon – which, they have a great field – then coming here to Myrtle Beach … I can’t imagine there’s a better place to play minor league baseball. So far, the people and the places I’ve gone are incredible and, like I said, I’m just excited to be out here in High-A my first year of pro ball and I’m playing well.”
His current manager has plenty of confidence in the young hurler.
“So far I really like what I’ve seen from Berg. He goes about his business the right way,” Pelicans manager Mark Johnson said. “He’s a guy with a lot of history throwing late in games. He holds that collegiate record for single-season saves, so he’s comfortable in those late game situations. He’s just getting his feet wet.”
Berg just hopes to one day be compared to some of the greats.
“I would only hope that one day someone would say that my game resembles Mariano Rivera’s in any way. I really admire him and the way he went about things,” Berg said. “Towards the end of his career, he was really throwing one pitch and one pitch only – the cutter – and everyone knew it was coming and he didn’t care. He knew it was a good enough pitch that when he located it, guys didn’t really have a chance. And I admire him for not only what he did on the field but the way he handled himself off the field. I can only strive to be anything remotely similar to [Rivera], with all the talent he has.”