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With experienced players out, UCLA baseball turns to its freshman class

Freshman infielder Roch Cholowsky throws from shortstop at Jackie Robinson Stadium. (Jordan Guzman/Daily Bruin)

By Kai Dizon

April 9, 2024 11:26 a.m.

Before the season, coach John Savage was clear.

He said the goal was to make the 2024 NCAA tournament after the Bruins failed to do so last year.

UCLA finished seventh in the 2023 Pac-12 standings when it hadn’t finished lower than fourth since 2016.

Now – following a series loss to Oregon and half of UCLA baseball’s conference schedule over – the Bruins sit second to last with a conference record of 5-10 and a 12-17 overall record.

After the Bruins’ 6-3 loss Sunday, Savage drew parallels between his team and UCLA men’s basketball coach Mick Cronin’s team.

“It’s fun to see the freshmen grow. It’s just hard,” Savage said. “You talk to Mick, and (playing) freshmen is really hard right now at this level. … It’s hard to win consistently. We’ve just got young guys, and that makes it so difficult – guys are inexperienced. … You ultimately have to have older guys really step up, and right now, unfortunately, we just don’t have enough.”

Cronin’s team ultimately failed to make March Madness – breaking the coach’s streak of 12 straight NCAA tournament appearances.

The Bruins are without their starting shortstop, their Saturday starter and the two relievers they used most frequently last season – all out because of injury.

In their place is UCLA’s freshman class – a group Baseball America ranked the No. 1 incoming recruiting class.

Most noticeable has been the bounceback of freshman right-hander Justin Lee.

Despite being ranked by Perfect Game as the No. 24 right-handed pitcher in the 2023 class, Lee posted an abysmal 16.43 ERA across his first 7.2 career innings pitched.

“He wasn’t ready at all for what this is all about early on,” Savage said. “To his credit, he’s really worked hard, and it’s fun to see his growth.”

In his last 7.2 innings, the Los Angeles local has allowed just two earned runs while striking out eight – good for an ERA of 2.50 in that span. Against Oregon on Sunday, Lee held the Ducks to one run over three innings of work.

“My confidence right now (has been the difference),” Lee said. “At the beginning of the year, I was throwing mainly my fastball, and they’re (opponents) just sitting dead-red on it. So having three or four pitches for them to think about helps work off the fastball.”

Luke Rodriguez, another freshman right-hander, has proven to be one of UCLA’s best arms this year. Outside of a blowup start against UC Santa Barbara on March 26, the Shafter, California, local has posted a 1.93 ERA – including a 2.1-inning appearance Saturday where he struck out three.

Freshman infielder Roch Cholowsky has taken over as the Bruins’ everyday shortstop with junior Cody Schrier out with a right index finger fracture. While Savage would like Schrier as back as soon as possible, the Bruins’ head coach said Cholowsky – the newly turned 19-year-old – has a future at shortstop and commended his high baseball IQ.

Schrier complimented Cholowsky as a player beyond his years.

“It’s his first year, but you can’t tell that,” Schrier told Pac-12 Networks during Sunday’s affair. “Roch came in with that maturity and that mindset. It doesn’t matter where he’s playing on the field – he’s going to go out there.

Corresponding with Cholowsky’s move to shortstop is freshman infielder Mulivai Levu’s move from first base to third.

“It’s not that much of a switch,” Levu said. “I played third all fall – it’s just another day. … It’s still a corner (infield position), so you’ve got to play it the same.”

Levu’s move to third also follows freshman infielder Roman Martin’s stint at the position. Across three starts at third base, Martin recorded four errors – including one in Friday’s game. Levu, on the other hand, retains a pristine 1.000 fielding percentage across his two starts.

“Mulivai, I thought played good third base,” Savage said. “He played a lot of high school shortstop and so forth. He’s just very comfortable on a baseball field, and that’s a very good trait.”

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