Defending champ UCLA has holes to fill but believes return to College World Series is possible

UCLA lost two of three weekend starters and the Pac-12 defensive player of the year, and less than a month ago the Bruins found out they would be without their best returning outfielder for the season.

None of that should discount them from making a run at a fourth College World Series appearance in five years and maybe even a second straight national championship.

While confidence is high in Westwood, there are doubts about the Bruins elsewhere. They're not even picked to finish first or second in the Pac-12.

No big deal, shortstop Kevin Kramer said, conference titles can be overrated.

"We finished third in the Pac-12 last year," Kramer pointed out, "and that was our best Pac-12 record ever."

The Bruins went into this weekend's season-opening series against Portland ranked in the top 15 in the major polls but no higher than No. 9.

Pitching and defense will carry UCLA again, though coach John Savage believes his team will be more proficient offensively than a year ago. It would be difficult to imagine the Bruins producing less offense. Their season batting average was .250, ranking 259th out of 296 Division I teams, and their 4.7 runs a game was 211th. At the CWS in Omaha, Neb., their .227 average was the lowest since teams went away from wooden bats in 1974, and their 19 runs in five games were the fewest by a champion since the event went to eight teams in 1950.

Savage doesn't blink at any of those statistics in this age of the dialed-back bat.

"If you're playing in our league, and if you're playing at a higher level, that's what you're dealing with," Savage said. "I don't see a whole lot of teams putting up huge offensive numbers and power numbers that are still playing at the end."

Kramer said he and his teammates have become accustomed to playing, and winning, close games. They were 27-3 in games decided by two runs or less.

"But I think it is important for us to get back to a better offensive state and put up more runs just to help our pitchers and help our confidence," he said. "A couple more runs a game wouldn't hurt."

UCLA's offense was dealt a major blow last month when right fielder Eric Filia underwent season-ending surgery to repair a tear in his right (throwing) shoulder. Filia batted a team-best .281, and he upped his production to .333 and eight RBIs in the CWS, including five in the title-clinching win against Mississippi State.

Filia will be replaced by Christoph Bono in right. Freshman Brett Stephens is in line to take over for Bono in left. Brian Carroll will be a second-year starter in center.

The biggest change in the infield is at shortstop. Kramer moves from third base to take over for three-year starter Pat Valaika, the conference defensive player of the year and ninth-round pick of the Colorado Rockies.

"If I'm half the shortstop Pat is," Kramer said, "I'll be lucky to be that."

Chris Keck is the new third baseman. Kevin Williams, primarily the designated hitter last season, will become the Bruins' regular second baseman after he returns in March from shoulder surgery. Converted infielder Shane Zeile begins his second full season as catcher.

Left-hander Grant Watson, who beat North Carolina to send the Bruins to the CWS finals, is the lone holdover among the weekend starters. Gone are Nick Vander Tuig and Adam Plutko, who combined to win 46 games the past two years.

"We are replacing some significant arms that have pitched well in our program," Savage said, "so there certainly are some questions that need to be answered."

Hard-throwing James Kaprielian, who had a 1.55 ERA in 34 relief appearances, moves into the rotation along with 2013 mid-week starter Cody Poteet. David Berg, the submarine-style reliever who has made 101 appearances the past two years, is back after setting an NCAA record with 24 saves.

UCLA's 2.55 ERA was sixth nationally last season. The staff was exceptional in the CWS, allowing four runs in five games to set a record for fewest in the metal-bat era.

"At the end of the year last year we definitely had everything rolling for us," Berg said. "We were feeling good, feeling confident. It's a new year. Even the guys who pitched last year and pitched well have to establish themselves this year and regain that confidence, that momentum. We're not going to quite be what we were in Omaha right out of the gate."