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UCLA, Cal State Fullerton look like best in West again

Bruins are coming off first College World Series title, and Titans have a pitching staff that is loaded.

February 12, 2014|By Gary Klein
  • UCLA reliever David Berg went 7-0 last season with an NCAA-record 24 saves.
UCLA reliever David Berg went 7-0 last season with an NCAA-record 24 saves. (Don Liebig / UCLA Athletics )

To reach Omaha, where UCLA last season won its first College World Series title, the Bruins survived a Super Regional at Cal State Fullerton against a team that finished with one of the best records in the Titans' storied history.

There could be another postseason showdown this season.

Fullerton is ranked No. 1 in several preseason polls, UCLA between ninth and 15th.

"They deserve to be No. 1," UCLA Coach John Savage said. "In terms of quality and depth, their pitching is just as good or better than it was last season."

Fullerton won the Big West Conference and finished 51-10 in 2013 with a rotation that featured then-freshmen Thomas Eshelman and Justin Garza and sophomore Grahamm Wiest.

Eshelman was 12-3 with a 1.48 earned-run average and walked only three batters in 115 2/3 innings. Garza was 12-0 with a 2.03 ERA. Wiest was 9-3 with a 3.27 ERA.

The three walked only 33 in a combined 334 1/3 innings.

"Our pitchers do what they're supposed to do," Fullerton Coach Rick Vanderhook said. "They throw the ball over the plate, they hold runners on and make people beat them with the bat."

Fullerton's staff has been bolstered by the addition of freshman Phil Bickford, who was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays with the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft. But the Titans must find a way to replace the 35 saves Michael Lorenzen supplied the last two seasons.

J.D. Davis and Matt Chapman, who drove in 50 and 37 runs, respectively, are top returning hitters for the Titans, who have not been to the College World Series since 2009. It is the longest stretch of Omaha absences for Fullerton since the four-time national champion Titans made the first of their 16 World Series appearances in 1975.

"I don't know if we're the best team in the country," said Vanderhook, whose team opens Friday against Washington State, "and it really doesn't matter right now. Hopefully, after 60-something games we'll be in a position to show that."

Savage is back at UCLA for a 10th season after being wooed by USC following the Bruins' World Series run.

USC Athletic Director Pat Haden offered Savage more than $1 million annually to return to the Trojans. Savage was a USC assistant from 1996-2000.

Savage chose to remain in Westwood. According to terms of his contract, which was extended to 2025, he can earn in the ballpark of the USC offer in base salary, talent fees, bonuses and revenue from camps and equipment contracts.

Savage said the aftermath of the national championship season is over.

"I'm as hungry as I've ever been and working as hard as I ever have," Savage said. "There have been a lot of things that go along with winning a national championship, but at the same time you need to realize, 'Hey man, it's a brand new team.' You don't have time to sit around and look at the trophy and look at the rings."

UCLA lost pitching stalwarts Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig from a team that finished 49-17, but the Bruins still have a talented staff.

Sophomore James Kaprielian (1.55 ERA), junior Grant Watson (9-3, 3.01) and sophomore Cody Poteet will begin the season as starters. All-American David Berg was 7-0 with an NCAA-record 24 saves last season as a sophomore.

Savage said that while the staff is not as experienced as last season's, the pitchers had the benefit of observing Plutko's and Vander Tuig's performance, work habits and resilience.

"It's not like they don't know what it looks like or feels like," Savage said. "Now they're the ones with the role and they know what it takes to be successful."

Kevin Kramer, who drove in 40 runs last season, moves from third base to shortstop. First baseman Pat Gallagher was the most valuable player of an NCAA regional. Catcher Shane Zeile also returns.

UCLA is attempting to reach the World Series for the fourth time in five seasons, but Savage said he was more concerned with the Bruins' opener Friday against Portland.

A possible Super Regional matchup against Fullerton?

"I'm not thinking that far ahead," Savage said.

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein

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