There will plenty of college baseball star power on display this weekend at the Dodger Stadium College Baseball Classic. Three of the four teams – TCU, UCLA, and Vanderbilt -- are ranked in the top 15 while the fourth, Southern California, is 8-3. Let's dissect the weekend series, and see what to watch for in what should be an exciting weekend of college baseball.
Aces are dealing
These four teams are entering the event a combined 36-12 on the young season. It’s safe to say there is going to be some fine pitchers dealing this weekend.
Vanderbilt’s Drake Fellows had a stellar freshman season. In fact, he was only the second freshman to earn a spot in the opening rotation under head coach Tim Corbin’s 16-year tenure. An injury to Patrick Raby got Fellows the Opening Day start this year and he has yet to relent. The righty attacks hitters, and gets by with good movement on his pitches, especially his nasty slider. He’s 1-0 through 3 starts, with a 1.76 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 15.1 IP.
And here’s the Drake Fellows slider...has been hellacious all game vs. hitters of either handedness. Can manipulate shape and land it for strike, adept at diving it under LHH hands as you see here. pic.twitter.com/4QgDH8ZgNq— Brian Sakowski (@B_Sakowski_PG) March 2, 2018
If you’re a TCU fan, you get your pick of aces. Nick Lodolo and Jared Janczak are both off to fine starts. Janczak, who earned the Opening Day nod, is still looking for his first win, but is pitching well behind a 2.84 ERA and 20 Ks over 19 innings. Lodolo on the other hand, is a perfect 3-0 through his first three starts, with a 2.60 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 17.1 innings pitched. He, like Fellows, has a slider that is worth watching on loop.
UCLA’s Jake Bird has worked around some unearned runs this year to go 1-0 in his first three starts. He has a minuscule 0.49 ERA entering the weekend. Some felt he may go in the MLB Draft last year after his junior season, but shoulder inflammation led to a missed month, and UCLA got its ace back for one more year. It appears the righty is back to full strength, with a sinker that’s amongst the best in the west. He, Ryan Garcia, Zach Pettway and Jon Olsen have been a nasty rotation thus far, leading UCLA's staff to a 1.93 ERA.
USC’s starters are still searching for their rhythm. As long as they can keep it close for the bullpen they should have a chance to win. The Trojans’ closer Connor Lunn fires mid-90s heat and has a struck out 10 in six innings. Despite his first loss against No. 5 Arkansas on a walk-off hit that nearly took off his head, he is tied for the NCAA lead with five saves.
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Freshmen on fire
All four of these teams have standout freshman. The Vandy Boys rookie class is out to a ferocious start. Austin Martin (.405) and Pat DeMarco (.393) lead the team in hitting, and Jayson Gonzalez is tied for the team lead in home runs. The five freshmen who make regular starts have combined for a .360 batting average, while the pitcher’s have a 2.71 ERA.
Both of TCU’s starting middle infielders are freshmen. Second basemen Coby Boulware’s bat is still getting acclimated to college baseball, but shortstop Adam Oviedo is off to a nice start. He’s hitting .302 with seven RBI. The tandem has committed just one combined error while adding 58 total assists.
USC’s Jamal O’Guinn is certainly one to watch. He's hitting .368 with three extra base hits and three RBI. He seems to be settling into an everyday starter role, starting all three games in the last two series.
UCLA has a young roster, with sophomores aplenty. Freshman Zach Pettway is off to a perfect start on the bump, sitting at 3-0 with a 0.95 ERA. He seemingly has solid command of the zone, walking just two batters in his first 19 innings. He's started the last three Sundays, so should get the nod in Dodger Stadium on Sunday against USC. No pressure, kid.
Vanderbilt is amid the longest road trip of the Tim Corbin era beginning in 2003. The Commodores are playing in their second big tournament in the past two weekends after hitting Houston for the Shriner’s Baseball Classic. Vandy hit a road bump early on in Minute Maid Park, dropping the first two games to Sam Houston State in extra-innings and Lafayette. It rebounded with a commanding 9-4 win over Houston to close it out.
The Commodores are now in California for the ninth time in the past ten years. It will be important to see how they rebound, especially against very tough competition in unfriendly environs. This weekend could tell us a lot about what kind of team Vanderbilt has this season.
Watson's hot start
We know the deal by now with TCU. The Horned Frogs win a lot of ball games, they head to regionals, and seemingly like clockwork, find their way to Omaha. That's thanks to a blend of fantastic pitching, and exciting hitting.
All eyes were on Luken Baker as he returned from injury that ended his season two months before TCU's run ended in Omaha last year. Thus far, it's safe to say he's delivered.
But the Horned Frogs offense has actually been fueled by Josh Watson. The junior outfielder is red hot, off to the best start in a thus far very good career. Watson has seven mutli-hit games in his first 11 of the season, leading TCU with a .462 batting average. He also has the most home runs on the team with four. He showed off his power from both sides of the plate in TCU's last win, homering from each side of the plate.
Impressive coaching resumes continue to build
It’s been an exciting March for the head coaches traveling to Los Angeles this weekend.
Earlier this week, Tim Corbin became the winningest coach in Vanderbilt history, picking up his 656th victory. Corbin of course rose to prominence as one of college baseball's best after taking the Commodores to back-to-back national championship series, winning it all in 2014.
Two days later, TCU’s skipper Jim Schlossnagle picked up his 700th career win, 623 of which are with the Horned Frogs. It's easy to get to numbers like that when TCU ends up in Omaha every year avergaing 49.5 wins per season over the last four years. Whatever Schlossnagle is doing, it's working.
Honorable mention: DE-FENSE!
Southern California may be the only team not in the nation's top 25 this weekend, but they are atop the rankings in one category. USC is leading the nation in fielding percentage at .997. They have been nearly flawless thus far, committing just one error. Think about how amazing a number like that is. The Trojans have played 99 innings of baseball and have goofed just once.
Sitting at 8-3, it's pretty easy to see why USC is off to its best start since 2015.