Underclassmen Shine At Dodger Stadium Classic

The first day of the Dodger Stadium Classic produced a Top 25 matchup between No. 11 UCLA and No. 21 Vanderbilt. The game – which the Commodores won, 6-3, at Jackie Robinson Stadium – could have been an Omaha preview for either this June or in 2019.

The two teams combined to start 11 underclassmen Friday, a group that included both teams’ three- and four-hole hitters, both teams’ catchers and Vanderbilt righthander Drake Fellows. For good measure, four of the six relievers the teams combined to use were also underclassmen.

The underclassmen for both teams played a significant role Friday. Fellows, a sophomore, struck out nine batters in seven innings and held UCLA to three runs on six hits and a walk. Freshman righthander Tyler Brown followed with two scoreless innings to earn his first career save. For UCLA, sophomore first baseman Michael Toglia went 3-for-3 with a walk and sophomore second baseman Chase Strumpf hit a two-run home run.

“You’ve got to let them go a little bit, you’ve got to let them play and not think too much,” Corbin said. “They’re going to fall down, but the most important thing is that they get back up again. Really that’s what I wanted to see out of the team more than anything else.”

UCLA and Vanderbilt are two of the youngest teams in the Top 25. The 22 other teams in the rankings that played Friday (No. 23 Central Florida begins its series against Siena on Saturday) averaged just 3.5 underclassmen in their starting lineups. No. 5 Texas Tech and No. 19 Louisville matched Vanderbilt for the least upperclassmen in their starting lineup with four each.

Vanderbilt (11-4) is in the second weekend of a road trip that started last week in Houston for the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic. The Commodores brought in the top-ranked recruiting class this fall and are still working out how best to integrate its latest batch of highly regarded recruits into the team. The road trip is also an important learning experience for the Commodores who are getting used to the rigors of college baseball.

Brown said the freshmen Commodores feed off each other’s’ success, helping to push each other on the field.

“If we can push each other for the next 3-4 years, that’s the goal,” he said. “Every one of us are good, every one of us has stuff. Just pushing each other and looking up to the older guys in the program.”

While Vanderbilt is playing several freshmen in key roles this season, UCLA’s underclassmen are mostly sophomores. That group, which ranked No. 16 in the 2016 recruiting rankings, saw lots of action last season and, as a result, should be beyond many of its growing pains.

“Our guys have been though a lot, Pac-12 play and regionals last year,” coach John Savage said. “I don’t really look at us as being young.”

UCLA’s strong sophomore class, led by Toglia, who is hitting .438/.556/.813, is a big part of the reason it is expected to contend this spring in the Pac-12 Conference. But it also has the Bruins (10-3) well positioned for 2019.

Vanderbilt is still figuring out how best to deploy its wealth of options in the lineup and on the pitching staff. It will take the young Commodores and Corbin some time to figure it all out, but once they do, they have a high ceiling – both this year and in the years to come.

“We’re trying to learn, too,” coach Tim Corbin said. “We’re trying to learn who can fill those roles and do what, and that stuff takes games in order to figure some of these things out.”

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