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College baseball preview: UCLA seeks to rebound from last year

UCLA's baseball team, beginning action against Hofstra on Friday, looks well suited to rebound from 2014

UCLA pitcher James Kaprielian has taken note, as have his teammates.

The Bruins open the college baseball season Friday as the highest-ranked team west of the Pecos. UCLA is rated No. 10 by Collegiate Baseball and No. 11 by Baseball America.

Six of the last 11 national championships have been won by teams from California, Oregon or Arizona, but that apparently buys only so much respect in the polls.

"We saw that," said Kaprielian, the ace of the Bruins pitching rotation. "Obviously, there are a bunch of great teams out there. We'll be in the mix. It's not a bad thing to stay under the radar."

UCLA has hard-knock experience in that area.

A year ago, college baseball seemed to be centered in the West. UCLA was the defending national champion and Cal State Fullerton was projected by Collegiate Baseball to be the 2014 champion.

But the preseason polls were pretty much the high point of the season out west.

UCLA spun out, going 3-14-1 to finish the regular season and missing the NCAA tournament. Fullerton needed a late-season rally just to finish fourth in the Big West Conference, and the Titans were eliminated by Oklahoma State during regional play.

UC Irvine was the lone team from the West to reach the College World Series, where the Anteaters lost two of three games.

This year, Fullerton is the pick of Big West Conference coaches to win the league, but the Titans will open ranked No. 17 by Collegiate Baseball and No. 23 by Baseball America. Outside of the Titans and Bruins, Arizona State is No. 18 and Oregon No. 20 according to Baseball America, and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is ranked No. 13, Oregon No. 15, UC Santa Barbara No. 16, Stanford No. 18 and Arizona State No. 19 by Collegiate Baseball.

Vanderbilt is ranked No. 1 in both polls.

"The West doesn't ever get the credit its due," UCLA Coach John Savage said. "We always have to prove everything. There are good teams out here, the Big West Conference, the West Coast Conference and, of course, the Pac-12. Other teams get the preseason hype. We have to go out and do it."

UCLA, 25-30-1 last season, appears well suited to rebound.

The Bruins' problems last season were easy to deduce. Injuries robbed them of the heart of their order — outfielder Eric Filia, second baseman Kevin Williams and shortstop Kevin Kramer. Closer David Berg and leadoff batter Brian Carroll also worked through injuries.

"It was opening day and we found out Kevin [Kramer] was going to have surgery and be out for the season," Savage said. "That was a big hole to fill."

Kramer is back to fill it, but Williams and Carroll were out of eligibility and Filia left school because of an academic issue.

However, the Bruins are better prepared to deal with such setbacks, Kaprielian said.

"Last year, there were too many parts pulling in different directions," Kaprielian said. "In 2013, we'd let a game slip away from us and we were over it. We found what we needed to be better the next day. Adversity is going to come at some point. I think we now know how to overcome it."

Quality pitching helps.

Kaprielian, a junior, had a 7-6 record last season, but also a 2.29 earned-run average and 108 strikeouts in 106 innings. He is projected to be a first-round pick in Major League Baseball's June draft.

Grant Watson returns as UCLA's No. 2 starter. He has won 22 games in three seasons. During the 2013 title run, Watson did not allow a run in 13 postseason innings and won both his starts.

Berg, who set an NCAA record with 24 saves in 2013, is back to close.

The college game is using a new baseball this season that is expected to help run production because its low seams allow the ball to travel farther and make it more difficult for pitchers to throw breaking balls.

Savage doesn't expect his pitchers to have problems. "Our pitching is very deep," he said. "We have 10 legitimate guys to go to, from the beginning of the game to the end."

The Bruins also have a strong freshman class, including starters at second base — Nick Valaika out Newhall Hart High — and third base, Sean Bouchard from San Diego Cathedral.

"We're going to push through," said Kaprielian, who will be the starter in UCLA's opener Friday night against Hofstra at Jackie Robinson Stadium. "That's the Bruin way."

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