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UCLA Baseball: 2015 Preview, Part 1- The National Scene

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Today we start a three part preview of the upcoming UCLA Baseball season. Today we focus on the national contenders for Omaha, with a particular look at nonconference powers on UCLA's schedule. Tomorrow we turn our attention to the Pac-11. And Thursday we will conclude with a look at the Bruins.

What every college team is playing for- a trip to Omaha
What every college team is playing for- a trip to Omaha
Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Here is Baseball America's preseason top 25. It is hard to argue with the choice of Vanderbilt as the preseason #1.

Six of the nine starting batters in the Vandy's CWS clinching win over Virginia return in 2015. The list includes 2B Darby Swanson (.331/.411/.475, 22 steals), RF Rhett Wiseman (.277/.343/.387), LF Bryan Reynolds (.338/.395/.480, 54 RBI's), 1B Zander Wiel (.260/.378/.409, 44 RBI's), 2B Tyler Campbell and C Tyler Ellison. That is a lot of experience and a lot of pop. On the mound, Tyler Beede moved on to the pros, but two other weekend starters return- Carson Fulmer (7-1, 1.98 ERA) and Walker Buehler (12-2, 2.64 ERA). Haydon Stone (4-0, 1.71), the winning pitcher in last year's CWS championship game, returns for Vandy's bullpen. Swanson is picked as the 1st team preseason All-American at 2B, as are Fulmer and Buehler as starting pitchers. And we get to see how the Bruins stack up against the best, as UCLA plays Vanderbilt at Jackie Robinson Stadium on Friday night, March 6. Vandy has a scary combo of batting for average for power coupled with solid pitching.

TCU comes in at #7 on the preseason top 25. Last year the Horned Frogs made it to Omaha, but were bounced with two losses (to Virginia and Ole Miss) after winning their opener. Four of the nine starting batters in TCU's final game return in 2015. The list includes CF Cody Jones (.265/.389/.315, 29 steals), 3B Derek Odell (.265/.347/.324, 35 RBI's), 2B Garrett Crain (.324/.403/.413), and SS Keaton Jones (.266/.341/.290). The starting pitchers in games 1 and 3 of the CWS return- Preston Morrison (9-4, 1.32) and Tyler Alexander (10-3, 2.36). And Riley Ferrell, the winning pitcher in game 1 returns to anchor the bullpen (9-1, 0.79, 15 saves, 70 K's in 45 IP). Ferrell is picked as the 1st team preseason closer (we'll see what David Berg has in response from the mound for the Bruins). After Vandy on Friday, the Bruins turn around and play TCU at Jackie Robinson Stadium on Saturday night, March 7. TCU seems to fit UCLA's mold more, with batters reaching base but without a lot of power, but lights out pitching including in the bullpen.

What a weekend. With Vandy having two stud starters and TCU also having two solid starters, the Bruins can count on seeing quality pitching on Friday and Saturday night. We will know a lot more about the Bruins' position on the national scene after those early March games.

North Carolina is picked at #17 in the preseason top 25. North Carolina got bounced in the regionals last year by Long Beach State (West coast is the best coast). In the  process, North Carolina did knock out the #2 national seed Florida. The Tar Heels return six starters from their final game in the Gainesville regional. The list includes LF Landon Lassiter (.305/.415/.359), CF Skye Bolt (leading in the clubhouse turn for best name) (.257/.373/.353, 32 RBI's), SS Wood Myers (.298/.358/.358, not a typo), 2B Alex Raburn (.263/.363/.326), RF Tyler Ramirez (.286/.364/.382, 30 RBI's), and C Korey Dunbar. The Tar Heels also return all three starting pitchers from last year's regional- Trent Thornton (7-4, 2.73), Benton Moss (4-2, 3.62) and Zac Gallen (5-4, 4.64). Reilly Hovis, the winning pitcher in the Florida game, returns as the ace in the pen (9-1, 2.25, 6 saves, 81 K's in 64 IP). Skye Bolt is a 3rd team preseason All-American outfield selection. After an opening home series against Hofstra and a midweek game at Northridge, the Bruins travel to Chapel Hill for an early non-conference series showdown with three day games- Friday, February 20 through Sunday, February 22.

The only West Coast team in the top 25 outside the Pac-11 (Colorado- I'm talking to you) is Cal State Fullerton. The Titans come in at #23, despite the disturbing defection of starting pitcher Phil Bickford, who transferred to a junior college to enter the 2015 draft. I really hope this is a special case, and not the start down a nasty road with less stability for college baseball in the future. Fullerton had a down year last season, but still managed to make the postseason, and fell in four games in the Stillwater regional, beating Nebraska twice but losing to host Oklahoma State twice. There are only two starting players from the final game of the 2014 season- OF Tyler Stieb and 2B Taylor Bryant. Even without Bickford, Fullerton has two starting pitchers from the Stillwater regionals- Thomas Eshelman (8-3, 1.98) and Justin Garza (5-4, 3.22, which was a down year after going 12-0, 2.03 in 2013). Eshelman is listed as a preseason 3rd team All-American starting pitcher, and Garza is also solid. If the Bruins face Eshelman or Garza in 2015, it will because the two teams are matched up in the regionals or super-regionals in the postseason. UCLA and Fullerton will play their usual home and away midweek series in 2015. The Bruins face the Titans at home on Tuesday night, April 14 and travel to Fullerton on Tuesday night, May 12.

After missing the postseason last year for the first time since 2009, the Bruins look to bounce back in 2015. As you can see, they have not chosen the easy path. But to be the best, you need to beat the best (no Oakland of Michigan, Sac State, Morehead State, Chattanooga sequence for Coach Savage).

Tomorrow we turn our attention to the Pac-12, and UCLA's position as the highest ranked team in the conference in the preseason top 25.

Go Bruins !!