Friday - 6:00pm
Saturday - 1:00pm
Sunday - 1:00pm
After an impressive sweep against the Cal Bears at Evans Diamond, Stanford enters this weekend atop the Baseball America Top 25 poll for the second week in a row. Winners of four straight and 10 of its last 11, the Cardinal have earned their number one ranking with outstanding offensive production, solid pitching, and some of the best defense in the country.
Mike Gillespie's USC Trojans upset the #13 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets last Friday, but then lost consecutive games to #19 Oklahoma and #17 Cal St. Fullerton before beating UC Irvine 2-0 on Tuesday, posting a 4-7 record through 11 games. The Trojans lead the nation with 12 National Championships, but haven't been to Omaha since their Mark Prior-led 2001 run, and failed to even make the NCAA Tournament in 2003. Nevertheless, the Trojans have a very capable team and have the added incentive of playing a huge rival (who happens to be ranked #1) at home and with something to prove this weekend.
Probable Starting Pitchers:
Friday, 6 PM: LHP Mark Romanczuk (3-1, 4.13 ERA) vs. RHP Ian Kennedy (2-0, 1.00 ERA)
Saturday, 1 PM: RHP Jeff Gilmore (3-1, 4.40 ERA) vs. LHP Bobby Paschal (1-2, 3.46 ERA)
Sunday, 1 PM: LHP Blake Holler (2-0, 1.89 ERA) vs. TBA
Fifteen games into the regular season, the Stanford Cardinal has looked every bit the part of the #1 team in the country. With only two losses, the Cardinal swept #17 Cal St. Fullerton, Kansas, and Cal while taking two of three from #4 Texas and Fresno St. While the Cardinal knows that it is still just March and that rankings are not that critical at this time of the year, the #1 ranking is certainly indicative of how the team has played through a quarter of the regular season.
Mark Marquess expected that this team would have several strengths, as so far the team has been true to form. First, a veteran offense has produced in droves, scoring at a clip of over 8 runs per game. The defense has played exceptionally well, fielding at a .978 clip, and the pitching staff has done as well if not better than expected. However, several key performers have greatly exceeded expectations, and that extra performance is in large part the key to the #1 ranking.
First, its tough to overstate the impact that Jed Lowrie has had. He has transformed from a player who was a solid hitter at the end of 2003 to the leading hitter on the club in average (.472), hits (25), RBI (22), slugging (.830), and on-base percentage (.543) in 2004. Plus, the indirect effect of a hot start is that teams have to pitch to hitters behind Lowrie with runners on base more often. Yeah, so its early. So what. For any 15 game stretch of the season, the job Lowrie has done is amazingly impressive. Other stellar offensive performers have been Jonny Ash, John Mayberry Jr., and Danny Putnam. Even with Sam Fuld, Brian Hall, and the bottom of the order struggling, offense is still the strength of the squad.
Second, the versatility of the pitching staff has been critical to early success. Freshman LHP Blake Holler's last two starts have solidified him as the #3 starter. As Mike Etchepare and Joe Ritzo have pointed out, Holler's early beginnings look remarkably similar to the start of Mark Romanczuk last season: perform well in early relief appearances, shine in his first few starts, and slide into the #3 spot in the rotation. Jeff Gilmore pitched 2 innings last year but now is firmly entrenched as the #2 starter after another solid outing at Cal. David O'Hagan has been incredible out of the pen, striking out 22 in 20.2 innings and garnering 3 saves. Plus, Jonny Dyer, Matt Manship, and Kodiak Quick all have proved reliable at times.
The more games the Cardinal play, the less evident weaknesses become. However, this team is far from flawless. Stanford has not yet found a consistent middle infield performer alongside Jed Lowrie between Chris Lewis, Adam Sorgi, and Chris Minaker. The production from the DH spot has been virtually non-existent since the second weekend of the season. And if an opposing team gets into the bullpen on a Friday, the rest of the weekend's bullpen can be questionable.
Over the last few seasons, the Cardinal has dominated USC. Last year, the Cardinal dropped the first game (non-conference), but went on to sweep the next five. In 2002, Stanford won seven of eight including a two-game Super Regional Sweep. The last time the Trojans won a series from the Cardinal was in 2001, when USC took two of three at Dedeaux Field.
Probable Starting Lineup:
1. CF Sam Fuld (Sr., .255, 0 HR, 9 RBI)
2. 3B Jonny Ash (Sr., .375, 0 HR, 13 RBI)
3. SS Jed Lowrie (So., .472, 3 HR, 22 RBI)
4. LF Danny Putnam (Jr., .365, 2 HR, 10 RBI)
5. 1B John Mayberry, Jr. (So., .333, 4 HR, 17 RBI)
6. C Donny Lucy (Jr., .293, 3 HR, 11 RBI)
7. DH Jim Rapoport (Fr., .176, 0 HR, 2 RBI)
8. RF Brian Hall (Sr., .208, 2 HR, 14 RBI)
9. 2B Chris Minaker (So., .250, 0 HR, 1 RBI)
Fuld may only be hitting .255, but his OBP is .432 because of his 17 BB… Putnam homered Saturday against Cal, picking up his first extra base hit since February 8th against Fresno St…. Mayberry leads the club in HR with four, one ahead of Lowrie , who leads the club in almost every other statistical category. Lowrie was also named NCBWA co-hitter of the week for his 7-10 effort against Cal… Lucy hit only 3 HR in his first two seasons with the Cardinal but already has 3 HR in 2004 after blasting a deep shot at Evans Diamond… Rapoport may get the nod at DH despite his struggles, as Chris Carter has struggled as well. DH could be a revolving door for some time until someone gets hot. John Hester ,Chris Lewis , and Chris Minaker are also candidates to start there….Hall is 3rd on the team in RBI despite his slow start average-wise…Minaker could start at least Friday at 2B after going 2-4 on Sunday. Neither Lewis nor Adam Sorgi (playing SS with Lowrie moving to 2B) has had much success offensively this season.
While the Cardinal sit comfortably at #1 in the polls, the USC Trojans come into this weekend not only unranked, but struggling to find an identity. The school that loudly touts its 12 national championships has declined since back-to-back appearances in Omaha in 2000 and 2001, starting off the 2004 season with a 4-7 record. The Trojans have been marred by injuries to their pitching staff over the last two years with a variety of pitchers going down with injuries. As a result, the 2004 pitching staff does not have nearly the strength that the Trojans have had in previous years. The club is also extremely young offensively, as the 7-8-9 hitters are all true freshman.
Offensively, USC is lead by their 3-4 hitters, Jeff Clement and Joey Metropoulos. Clement hit 21 HR in his freshman campaign on route to his Pac-10 Freshman of the Year award. However, he has been sidelined with mononucleosis, and has only played in 7 games, posting a .154 average and no HR. Metropoulos, on the other hand, is off to a fast start. The junior 1B is hitting .378 with 4 HR in 10 games. Sophomore transfer Blake Sharpe has played well early and filled a hole at SS, a position where USC has had major instability since All-American Seth Davidson departed after the 2001 season.
On the mound, Freshman Ian Kennedy was one the prizes from the high school class of 2003 and has not disappointed. The righthander has not lost a game, posting a 1.00 ERA and striking out an amazing 32 in 18 innings. He picked up his first save on Tuesday against UC Irvine, when he came into the game in the ninth and promptly struck out the side. Trojan hopeful are already comparing him to Mark Prior. He is considerably smaller in size than Prior (6'0", 180 compared to 6'5", 230), but Kennedy has already passed one big test, dominating Georgia Tech last weekend with a win and 10 Ks. The rest of the rotation is not as stable, with sophomore LHP Bobby Paschal starting on Saturday (opponents hitting .327 against) and the Sunday starter listed at TBA.
The Trojans are likely much more talented than their record would indicate. Their schedule has included #7 Long Beach St. (lost 2 of 3), #11 Notre Dame (loss), #13 Georgia Tech (win), #17 Cal St. Fullerton (loss), and #19 Oklahoma (loss). Playing any other schedule, the Trojans would likely be at least .500, if not well above. But with the Cardinal coming to town, it definitely isn't getting easier for USC.
Probable Starting Lineup:
1. LF Jon Brewster (Sr., .213, 0 HR, 3 RBI)
2. 3B Michael Moon (Sr., .214, 0 HR, 3 RBI)
3. 1B Joey Metropoulos (Jr., .378, 4 HR, 8 RBI)
4. C Jeff Clement (So., .154, 0 HR, 2 RBI)
5. SS Blake Sharpe (So., .366, 2 HR, 8 RBI)
6. DH Baron Frost (So., .306, 0 HR, 4 RBI)
7. RF Cyle Hankerd (Fr., .250, 0 HR, 3 RBI)
8. CF Daniel Perales (Fr., .289, 2 HR, 6 RBI)
9. 2B Hector Estrella (Fr., .208, 0 HR, 3 RBI)
Brewster is making the transition from middle infield to OF to make way for freshman prospects up the middle…. Moon is trying to regain the form of his sophomore year when he hit .336 with 8 HR… Metropoulos had a great weekend last weekend against solid competition, going 5-10 with 2 HR. He has easily been the Trojans most consistent performer this year and even going back to 2002… Clement is beginning to see most of the time at catcher after a bout with mono, but has yet to hit a HR in 2004. That will change soon… Sharpe is a transfer from L.A. Pierce College who has played well enough to secure the job at SS…Frost is the backup catcher who has alternated with Clement at catcher and DH… Hankerd, Perales, and Estrella are all true Freshman.
Things to Watch:
**Friday Night Matchup. Ian Kennedy has been the Trojans biggest bright spot, and is capable of shutting down a veteran team (ask Georgia Tech). Mark Romanczuk's last outing was not his best, and he will be anxious to get back on the hill.
**USC Bullpen. This is not a deep USC staff. If the Cardinal get into the bullpen early, watch out. We could see some big numbers put up offensively by Stanford hitters. Remember last season when the Cardinal scored 38 runs in one weekend against USC.
**Dedeaux Field. Not exactly Evans Diamond, the park is still prone to see multi-homer games. Clement and Metropoulos can light it up but so can Stanford's hitters.
**Jed Lowrie. A great start, can it continue?
**Blake Holler. Will one more quality start make him untouchable as the #3 starter in 2004?