Baseball Preview: USC

Stanford concludes their season-long eight-game roadtrip this weekend when they travel down to Los Angeles for a matchup with USC. The Trojans feature an impressive offense and possibly the top starting pitcher in the country. Both clubs are looking to build momentum heading into the start of Pac-10 play. Here is a complete preview of this non-conference series.

Expectations are once again very high down in Los Angeles for the USC baseball team.  Last season, the Trojans finished with a 41-22 overall record and a 15-9 mark in Pac-10 play.  After a regional win at Long Beach State, USC nearly pulled off an upset in the super regional round before eventually falling in three games to the conference champion and host Oregon State Beavers.  With nearly every hitter returning and a possibly the most dominant starting pitcher in the fold, the hopes down south are that the Trojans can win the Pac-10 this season and possibly make a run to Omaha.

The preseason #17 team in the country according to Baseball America, USC has stumbled a bit out of the gate.  After getting swept by Long Beach State in a home-and-home series to begin the season, the Trojans fell out of the rankings.  Since then, USC has played better baseball, but still find themselves with just a 10-9 record heading into this weekend's matchup with the Cardinal.

Three weeks ago, the Trojans posted single victories over ranked opponents Kansas and San Diego at a tournament hosted by themselves.  They followed that up with a two-of-three series loss at a very talented Hawaii team.  USC then returned home to begin a ten-game homestand at Dedeaux Field that takes them into the start of conference play.  Last weekend, the Trojans took two-of-three from the Georgia Bulldogs of the SEC in a highly competitive series (L 2-3, W 9-5, W 12-11).  Looking to build on the impressive series win though, USC took a small step back with their 10-9, 13 inning loss to visiting UC Irvine on Tuesday of this week.  That makes the Trojans 2-2 on their current homestand with a showdown against Pac-10 favorite Oregon State in Los Angeles next weekend.  USC would like nothing more to record a series win against Stanford to put some more distance between themselves and the .500 mark while also gaining some momentum heading into their matchup with the Beavers.

All-American catcher and first round draft pick Jeff Clement is now in professional baseball, but nearly every other hitter is back.  All total, USC has seven starting position players returning from a team that finished just one win shy of the College World Series.  With all of that returning talent, it's no surprise to see the Trojans sitting atop the Pac-10 in batting average at an impressive .323 clip.  USC averages over seven runs per game and will certainly put pressure on the Stanford pitching staff this weekend with numerous high average players and good speed up-and-down the lineup.

This is a Trojan ballclub that doesn't use the home run ball as their main offensive source (11 HR in 19 games).  They do have some legitimate power hitters in the middle of their lineup though and are always very difficult to beat at Dedeaux Field.  This is a team that will drop down plenty of sacrifice bunts and is not afraid to steal bases at any point in the contest.  Five starters are batting at .342 or above clip and this isn't a club that will strike out a lot.

Leading the offensive charge is junior left fielder Cyle Hankerd with his sizzling .425 batting average.  The #3 hitter in the lineup, Hankerd was a solid player in his first two seasons with the Trojans hitting a combined .312 with three homers.  After a standout summer though, it would appear Hankerd has taken his game to the next level and is doing an excellent job filling the shoes of Clement as the go-to player in this lineup.  He currently leads the team in batting average, doubles (7), home runs (4), RBI (26), and slugging percentage (.688).  His 34 hits is tops in the Pac-10 while he's also second in RBI and third in average.

Keeping Hankerd in check will be a difficult task for the Stanford pitching staff this weekend, but certainly a key will be to limit the baserunners in front of the slugger.  That won't be easy as well with the combination of Matt Cusick and Blake Sharpe putting up impressive numbers in the 1-2 spots in the batting order respectively.  A pair of returning starters who had already produced quite a bit with the Trojans before this year, both players are off to very strong starts in 2006. 

Cusick, the third baseman, hit .311 as a freshman last season.  He's all the way up to .403 from the #1 spot in the batting order this year.  Meanwhile, Sharpe has played in every game with USC since joining the club from L.A. Pierce College prior to the 2004 season.  A career .311 hitter, the second baseman Sharpe has posted a .343 batting average this season hitting in front of Hankerd.  USC may possess the top offense in the Pac-10 this season with the trio of Cusick, Sharpe, and Hankerd leading the way.

There aren't a lot of breaks in the middle of the USC lineup as the Trojans possess plenty more experience and talent.  Senior catcher/DH Baron Frost has a solid power bat and brings a .293 average and two home runs into this weekend.  Junior center fielder Daniel Perales hit .286 as a freshman in '04 and then followed up that campaign by earning Cape Cod League All-Star honors.  He missed most of last season with a back injury, but has returned in 2006 and is better than ever.  Perales brings a .364 average into this series and is a very talented defensive center fielder.  He entered USC as one of the top outfield prospects in the country.  Finally, keep an eye out for Lucas Duda.  A sophomore first baseman, Duda was a premier recruit for the Trojans two years ago.  A power-hitting left-handed bat, Duda hit just .208 in limited action last season as a freshman.  He's come into his own this year though as evident by his .348 batting average and two home runs thus far.

While the offense has put up some big numbers for USC so far this season, there's no question that junior pitcher Ian Kennedy is the star of the team.  The 2005 Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year, Kennedy is possibly the top starting pitcher in the entire country and a sure-fire first round draft pick this June.  The right-hander stepped onto the USC campus as a freshman in 2004 and immediately became the ace of the staff.  He now boasts a 21-8 career record with a sparkling 2.64 ERA.  Over 245 innings, Kennedy has walked just 79 to go with a mind-boggling 324 strike outs.  Kennedy earned First Team All-American honors last year as a sophomore and could be headed toward the same distinction as a junior.

Strike outs are the name of the game for Kennedy.  He recorded a whopping 158 of them last year in just 117 innings pitched to lead the entire country.  USC is a proud program with 12 national championships while numerous future major leaguers have come through the Los Angeles campus.  With all of that history, it speaks volumes about Kennedy that he is the USC career-leader in strikeouts per nine innings.  Kennedy currently checks in at 11.9 punchouts per nine innings - just ahead of second-place Mark Prior (11.52) who was one of the top collegiate pitchers of all-time.

Through five starts this year, Kennedy owns a 2.29 ERA while holding opponents to a .203 batting average against.  Despite USC's gaudy offensive numbers though, the All-American is just 2-3 this season with losses coming to Long Beach State, Hawaii, and Georgia.  Over 35 1/3 innings, Kennedy has walked just ten batters compared to 46 strike outs.  The matchup on Friday night should no doubt be a dandy when Kennedy faces off against Greg Reynolds - another possible first round draft pick this June.

So with an offense scoring runs at an impressive rate and a dominant starting pitcher, how come USC is just 10-9 this year?  The big question mark for this team coming into the season was who else would emerge on the pitching staff.  Three other pitchers saw significant time in the starting rotation for the Trojans last season in Jack Spradlin, Brett Bannister, and Anthony Encinas.  Spradlin and Bannister are now in professional baseball while Encinas will miss the entire 2006 season after undergoing Tommy John Surgery.  That has resulted in two freshmen stepping into the Saturday and Sunday spots in the starting rotation this year.

Right-hander Ryan Cook will get the ball on Saturday afternoon for the Trojans.  In five starts, Cook has struggled to the tune of a 7.20 ERA (20 ER/25.0 IP) with a .330 opponents batting average.  Cook has also walked more batters (16) than he has struck out (9).  The fact he's beginning his USC career as a starting pitcher likely means Cook is not short on talent and should develop into a fine pitcher in this program.  But he's still just a freshman and the numbers indicate he's going through plenty of growing pains this early-season.

Sunday starter Tommy Milone has fared better than his classmate thus far.  A lefty, Milone is a perfect 4-0 with a 4.50 ERA over five starts and two relief appearances.  Milone, like Cook, has proven to be quite hittable as he checks in with a .316 opponents average.  But the main difference between the two has been the number of walks.  While Cook has struggled with his control at times, Milone has issued just five free passes (compared to 21 K's) over 34 innings. 

The bullpen for USC has certainly been inconsistent to start the year and it remains to be seen how much quality depth they actually have.  Paul Koss (3.60 ERA, 2 SV) is one of the better closers on the west coast as he racked up 14 saves as a sophomore in 2005.  Freshman right-hander John Dunn is the workhorse of the bullpen appearing in 12 of their first 19 games.  Over 21 1/3 innings, Dunn boasts a 2.11 ERA.  Other than Koss and Dunn, head coach Mike Gillespie is still looking for more out of his relievers.  As a team, USC owns a 4.66 ERA.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Matt Cusick, 3B  (So., 403, 1 HR, 17 RBI, 2 SB)
2. Blake Sharpe, 2B  (Sr., .342, 0 HR, 11 RBI, 3 SB)
3. Cyle Hankerd, LF  (Jr., .425, 4 HR, 26 RBI, 2 SB)
4. Baron Frost, C  (Sr., .293, 2 HR, 17 RBI, 3 SB)
5. Daniel Perales, CF  (Jr., .364, 1 HR, 10 RBI, 5 SB)
6. Lucas Duda, 1B  (So., .348, 2 HR, 17 RBI, 4 SB)
7. Josh Fogel, DH  (Jr., .308, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB)
8. Hector Estrella, SS  (Jr., .236, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB)
9. Darin Vieira, RF  (Sr., .288, 0 HR, 8 RBI, 0 SB)

Fri- Ian Kennedy, RHP  (Jr., 2-3, 2.29 ERA, 35 1/3 IP, 10 BB, 46 SO)
Sat- Ryan Cook, RHP  (Fr., 0-2, 7.20 ERA, 25 IP, 16 BB, 9 SO)
Sun- Tommy Milone, LHP  (Fr., 4-0, 4.50 ERA, 34 IP, 5 BB, 21 SO)

Notes:
Cusick has struck out just three times in his first 77 at-bats this season ... Sharpe played first base, second base, shortstop, and right field for the Trojans last year in earning Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 honors ... Hankerd was the MVP of the New England Collegiate Baseball League last summer when he hit .383 (44-for-115) with nine home runs and 36 RBI ... Perales hit .296 as a freshman in the Cape Cod League two summers ago ... Fogel has just 13 at-bats this year (four hits) ... Estrella has the lowest average among the regulars, but has committed just three errors (.957 FLD%) from his shortstop position ... Vieira hit just .209 in his first three years with USC as a utility player.



STANFORD NOTES
The 16th ranked Cardinal haven't played since Saturday after their Sunday series finale at California was rained out.  The field over in Berkeley was too wet to play the game on Monday and then Tuesday's scheduled contest at San Jose State was also postponed due to weather conditions.  Stanford enters this series with a 10-5 overall record and will take two weeks off after Sunday's game for their final exams.

The current roadtrip (which will end on Sunday) is now just eight games in length - still their longest of the season.  Thus far, the Cardinal have posted a 3-2 record with a series win at Fresno State before splitting a pair of one-run games with California last weekend. 

Stanford's team batting average continues to rise as it sits at .259 entering Friday's series-opener.  Senior shortstop Chris Minaker torched Cal pitching last weekend recording seven hits over the two games.  Minaker leads the team with a .381 batting average, three home runs, and 19 RBI.  He's also hit safely in eight consecutive games.  The key for the Cardinal moving forward is finding consistent production up-and-down the lineup.  Seniors John Hester (.204 AVG) and Chris Lewis (.180 AVG) have struggled, for the most part, at the plate in the early-going.  Meanwhile, Stanford starts as many as four freshmen in their lineup which also has led to some inconsistency.

On the pitching side, Stanford's team ERA is at 3.37 - second lowest in the Pac-10.  Greg Reynolds will get the ball on Friday evening with the surging Matt Manship starting on Saturday.  Over his last three starts, Manship has posted a 1.65 ERA (3 ER/16.1 IP).  The Cardinal have not yet officially announced a starting pitcher for Sunday's game.

While the offense has shown steady signs of improvement of late and the pitching has been excellent from day one, Stanford has endured plenty of struggles with their infield defense.  Lewis committed four throwing errors at second base in two games last weekend to lower his fielding percentage to .857 on the season.  Lewis' defensive struggles (eight errors total) may force Coach Marquess to move him over to DH for the time being.  Meanwhile, the freshman third base duo of Cord Phelps and Austin Yount has racked up six errors for an .850 fielding mark.  Yount's throwing error in the bottom of the ninth inning last Friday scored the winning run for the Golden Bears.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Joey August, LF  (Fr., 345, 0 HR, 2 RBI, 0 SB)
2. Jim Rapoport, CF  (Jr., .273, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 1 SB)
3. Chris Minaker, SS  (Sr., .381, 3 HR, 19 RBI, 3 SB)
4. Michael Taylor, RF  (So., .346, 1 HR, 14 RBI, 1 SB)
5. John Hester, C  (Sr., .204, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 2 SB)
6. Jason Castro, 1B  (Fr., .196, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 2 SB)  or  Brent Milleville, 1B  (Fr., .240, 0 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB)
7. Brendan Domaracki, DH  (So., .250, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 0 SB)
8. Chris Lewis, 2B  (Sr., .180, 2 HR, 6 RBI, 1 SB)
9. Cord Phelps, 3B  (Fr., .290, 0 HR, 2 RBI, 0 SB)

Fri- Greg Reynolds, RHP  (Jr., 1-1, 2.84 ERA, 31 2/3 IP, 4 BB, 31 SO)
Sat- Matt Manship, RHP  (Sr., 0-1, 3.97 ERA, 22 2/3 IP, 4 BB, 16 SO)
Sun- TBA

Notes:
August reached base safely in eight out of his ten plate appearances (four hits, four walks) at California last weekend ... Minaker is hitting .528 (19-for-36) during his current hitting streak ... He's also struck out just twice in 63 at-bats this season ... Taylor had an eight-game hitting streak snapped at California last Saturday ... Castro has only one hit in his last 19 AB's ... Domaracki has "started" the last three games at DH (3-for-12, 2 RBI) ... Phelps picked up three hits in five at-bats on Saturday in Berkeley ... Manship is still winless this season despite his recent success ... The senior right-hander has left each of his last two starts with the lead (5-1, 7th inning advantage at Cal last weekend).



ODDS AND ENDS
* Stanford has rescheduled the postponed games at Cal and at San Jose State.  The non-conference matchup versus the Bears will take place on Monday, May 1st at Evans Diamond (2:30 P.M.).  The Cardinal will then take on California for three conference games at Sunken Diamond that following weekend.  Meanwhile, Stanford will now take on the Spartans on Saturday, April 8th at Blethen Field in San Jose (1:00 P.M.).

* Stanford and USC split six games played between the teams last season.  The Cardinal took two-of-three at Sunken Diamond early in the year before the Trojans won two-of-three games at Dedeaux Field last May.  Stanford hasn't lost a season-series to USC since 1996 (0-6).

* Cardinal freshman southpaw Jeremy Bleich is tied for the Pac-10 lead in saves with five.  Bleich has allowed just one earned run over 12 innings this season (0.75 ERA, 1 BB, 11 SO).

* USC is first in the Pac-10 in hitting (.323) and eighth in ERA (4.66).  The Cardinal are ninth in the conference in batting average (.259) and second in pitching (3.37).

* Kennedy came within one out of throwing a no-hitter against Kansas on February 17th at Dedeaux Field.  He finished the evening with one hit allowed over 8 2/3 innings, three walks, and 13 strike outs.

* Kennedy has recorded double-digit strikeout totals in three of his first five starts this season.

* Kennedy has a career 2.22 ERA (6 ER/24.1 IP) in four starts against the Cardinal.  He's struck out 24 batters.

* Kennedy, who has starred on Team USA the past two summers, was projected as the seventh overall pick in this year's draft by Baseball America prior to the start of the season.

* Milone was roughed up for seven earned runs on nine hits spanning three innings in his last start (March 5th vs. Georgia).  The freshman has surrendered six home runs in 34 innings this year.

* This series will not count in the Pac-10 standings.  The Trojans visit Sunken Diamond in just three weeks (March 31-April 2) in a matchup that will count toward the conference standings.

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