Analysis: Baseball's freshmen make early impact

Opel and Brown led an influential class of Tiger rookies.
Missouri freshman infielder Eric Garcia eyes a foul ball during a game against University of Arkansas--Pine Bluff on March 24 at Taylor Stadium. Underclassmen, such as Garcia, have led the team throughout the season.

At first glance, the 2010 Missouri baseball team is all about the "Big Three" upperclassmen. Senior infielders Aaron Senne and Michael Liberto and junior third baseman Brett Nicholas clearly lead the pack.

But if you take a closer look into this season, you'll find a group of game-tested freshmen that have helped carry the load for the Tigers.

Outfielder Dane Opel is the obvious standout of this year's freshman class. Headlining the lefty's impressive first-year resume are his two walk-off hits, the second of which earned him a shaving cream facial from his teammates during a post-game interview. Also up there are his three doubles in a game against Baylor in early April, the Tiger's first such performance since 2002.

Opel also leads all Missouri freshmen with 26 RBIs and his .287 batting average is fourth behind the big three upperclassmen. Though he's shined at the plate, Opel's defensive play is even more striking. He has yet to make an error in 30 starts in the outfield.

Of all the rookies, outfielder Blake Brown is the most game-tested with 38 appearances. Though he's often called on to pinch hit, Brown's patience at the plate is up and down: He's among the walk leaders with 17, but on the other hand his 38 strikeouts are the most for Missouri. But when the speedy Illinois-native does get on base, he tends to make it count as he leads his class in runs scored.

Another Tiger who has made an impact on offense is freshman infielder Eric Garcia. When it comes to extra-base hits, Garcia is in the ranks of the upperclassmen. He leads all first-year players with four homers and eight doubles, and his tendency to line the ball into the gap puts him with more than 30 hits this year along with Brown and Opel.

The mound might be the one place where the freshmen have not thrived, but freshman right-hander Eric Anderson has worked to stake his spot in this year's pitching staff. With nine starts, he shares the load of starter with junior right-hander Nick Tepesch. Anderson is also second to Tepesch in strikeouts and innings pitched. The freshman hurler's in-game experience has come at a high price however, as he's posted a team high 5.74 ERA with four losses.

Other freshmen who have seen action this season are outfielders Kale Gaden and Brannon Champagne. Each is hitting over .200 in at least a dozen starts. Redshirt freshman catcher Andreas Plackis has also made some appearances at designated hitter and has 14 RBI this year.

Some freshmen who have yet to find the spotlight this year include hurlers Neil Hugenberg and Kenny Burton, each with just two innings pitched. They're joined by catchers Scott Sommerfeld and Ben Turner and redshirt freshmen outfielders Jeff Lusardi and Andre Rodriguez.

Next up for the freshmen and company is a midweek matchup with Missouri State at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

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