Cardinal Host USC This Weekend

The USC Trojans bring their high-powered offense and standout ace starting pitcher to Sunken Diamond this weekend for a three-game series. The Trojans, a Pac-10 title contender, took two-of-three games from the Cardinal three weeks ago down in Los Angeles. This time, the series will count in the conference standings as Stanford looks to get back on the right track.

This year's USC Trojans ballclub is all about a high-powered offense and a dominant #1 starting pitcher.  Three weeks ago in Los Angeles, USC took two-of-three games from the Cardinal winning the last two contests by scores of 16-7 and 7-2.  The dominant offensive outputs - mainly during the Saturday affair - certainly turned some heads and should have Stanford fans weary of the matchup this weekend.

The Trojans enter this series with a 15-12 overall record and a 2-1 mark in conference play.  USC, ranked 17th in the Baseball America preseason poll, started slow this year as they were swept by Long Beach State (a team now under .500) to begin the season.  Since then, it's been a steady upward climb for the Trojans - now with a chance this weekend to knock off a quality team on the road. 

USC has taken three straight series' at their home ballpark with two-of-three victories over the likes of nationally ranked Georgia, Stanford (non-conference), and Oregon State (conference).  Interestingly, all three series' saw the Trojans drop the first game with Ian Kennedy on the mound before winning the final two contests - thanks in large part to their dominant offense.

Kennedy, the reigning Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year and First Team All-American, is just 2-4 in his first seven starts of the season.  Every other statistic though screams dominant pitcher.  The junior right-hander, who is expected to be a high first round draft pick this June, boasts a 2.83 ERA, nearly seven innings per start, and a .227 opponents batting average.  Through 47 2/3 innings, Kennedy has walked 16 and struck out 53.

A low-scoring affair on Friday night is expected when Kennedy locks up with Greg Reynolds (1-2, 3.18 ERA).  Even though both hurlers currently sport records under .500, the series-opener has a chance to be one of the better pitched affairs that fans will have a chance to see at Sunken Diamond this season.

It should be noted that Stanford did score five runs against Kennedy in his 6 1/3 innings back on March 10th.  Freshman Joey August delivered a two-run homer in the top of the seventh to knock the ace hurler out of the game.  Stanford eventually won the contest by a 7-6 tally.

The fact USC still has a solid overall record (playing one of the toughest schedules in the country) despite so few wins in games that Kennedy has started should tell you something about their offense.  As a team, the Trojans score over seven runs per game while they're hitting a spectacular .334.

Five starters are batting at a .356 clip or above and only one of their regulars is currently under the .300 mark.  USC isn't a big home run hitting club (14 HR in 27 games) and they won't steal nearly as many bases as Washington State did.  However, there may not be a more complete offensive group in the Pac-10 and perhaps the entire country.  The lineup is filled with line drive, gap hitters that will offer no breaks for the Cardinal pitching staff.  Add to that, head coach Mike Gillespie is extremely unpredictable when it comes to matchups and bunts and other strategic plays.  Stanford will have to be aware all weekend.

Junior outfielders Cyle Hankerd and Daniel Perales are the go-to players in this potent offense.  They're currently batting at .402 and .398 clips respectively and each could be headed toward All-American seasons.  Hankerd has more power (5 HR), but Perales is tougher to strike out and has excellent speed.  Unfortunately, even if the Cardinal manage to contain these two players (Perales went 5-for-5 against Stanford in the 16-7 rout), there are still plenty more talented hitters to deal with.

Leadoff hitter Matt Cusick is batting .379 and has struck out just five times in 103 at-bats.  Sophomore first baseman Lucas Duda, a highly touted prospect upon his arrival to USC, has really come into his own this year.  Duda brings a .361 average into this weekend.  Despite that high average, Duda has been hitting seventh in the order of late for USC.  Senior DH Baron Frost is batting .356 and has plenty of experience.  Senior Darin Vieira, a career utility player, has blossomed this season as evident by his .333 average.  Meanwhile, JC transfer catcher Johnny Bowden, the player saddled with having to fill the shoes of the drafted Jeff Clement, is even hitting .321 and picked up five RBI in a game against Stanford three weeks ago.

USC finished just one victory shy of the College World Series last year.  Seven of their nine offensive starters return, so experience isn't an issue.  And everyone has improved which has made the Trojans a legitimate Pac-10 title contender.

Whether USC has a chance to contend seriously on the national level will largely fall on the shoulders of a pair of freshman hurlers.  First-year players Tommy Milone and Ryan Cook will start the Saturday and Sunday games respectively this weekend for the Trojans.  Milone, a lefty, is a perfect 5-0 with a 4.15 ERA through 47 2/3 innings this season.  A control artist (7 BB, 28 SO), Milone gave the Cardinal fits three weeks ago at Dedeaux Field.  In seven innings, the southpaw allowed just two runs on six hits and retired the last nine batters he faced.

Cook is 2-3 with a 5.68 ERA thus far.  A right-hander, he's walked more hitters (23) than he's struck out (16) in 38 innings pitched.  Cook was often in trouble in his start against Stanford in mid-March as he allowed eight hits to go with a pair of walks over 5 1/3 innings.  But the freshman did an excellent job limiting the damage holding the Cardinal to just three runs and then let his offense do the rest.  Milone and Cook both possess opponent batting averages over .300, but with the bats they have supporting them, it shouldn't take much for USC to enjoy plenty of success on Saturday's and Sunday's during the Pac-10 campaign.

USC currently enjoys a solid 4.24 team ERA.  Out of the bullpen, there isn't a lot of depth as Kennedy and Milone especially are expected to pitch deep into games.  Frosh John Dunn is a workhorse having appeared in 18 of their first 27 games (2-1, 2.59 ERA).  Meanwhile, junior Paul Koss is one of the finest closers on the west coast.  He's saved three games this year to go with a 2.25 ERA and a .148 opponents average.  If the starters can go deep into games this weekend for the Trojans, then look for plenty of Dunn and Koss in the late innings which should lead to favorable results.

It seems highly unlikely that Stanford's pitching staff will be able to completely shut down this USC offense.  It's probably the best one they're going to face this season and the Cardinal are well aware of that fact having seen the Trojans three weeks ago.  Not only are they talented, but USC is also unpredictable, as mentioned above.  Stanford players and coaches have to be on their toes throughout the entire weekend knowing that Gillespie often doesn't go "by the book."

A big question remains for Stanford as to when their offense is going to breakout.  The Cardinal, now 12-9 (1-2 in the Pac-10) are hitting just .260 as a team while scoring five runs per game.  Production like that likely won't be enough to hang with the Trojans this weekend if Stanford has visions of winning this series.  USC hardly has dominant starting pitchers in the Saturday and Sunday slots.  Talented yes, but not nearly as experienced and potentially dominant as what has been seen from the likes of Fullerton, Texas, and Fresno State.  With USC's potent offense (which could be on full display in the afternoon hours on Saturday and Sunday), it will likely be of paramount importance for Stanford this weekend to put forth a better showing at the plate.  It'll be needed to keep pace.  If that doesn't happen, the Cardinal could be looking at a sub-.500 conference record with a trip to #12 Oregon State next on the docket and just two more home Pac-10 series' remaining.

USC Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Matt Cusick, 3B  (So., .379, 1 HR, 19 RBI, 2 SB)
2. Blake Sharpe, 2B  (Sr., .303, 0 HR, 15 RBI, 3 SB)
3. Cyle Hankerd, LF  (Jr., .402, 5 HR, 32 RBI, 2 SB)
4. Daniel Perales, CF  (Jr., .398, 2 HR, 20 RBI, 6 SB)
5. Baron Frost, DH  (Sr., .356, 3 HR, 25 RBI, 3 SB)
6. Darin Vieira, RF  (Sr., .333, 0 HR, 17 RBI, 0 SB)
7. Lucas Duda, 1B  (So., .361, 2 HR, 24 RBI, 4 SB)
8. Johnny Bowden, C  (Jr., .321, 0 HR, 9 RBI, 1 SB)
9. Hector Estrella, SS  (Jr., .235, 1 HR, 8 RBI, 1 SB)

Fri- Ian Kennedy, RHP  (Jr., 2-4, 2.83 ERA, 47 2/3 IP, 16 BB, 53 SO)
Sat- Tommy Milone, LHP  (Fr., 5-0, 4.15 ERA, 47 2/3 IP, 7 BB, 28 SO)
Sun- Ryan Cook, RHP  (Fr., 2-3, 5.68 ERA, 38 IP, 23 BB, 16 SO)


Stanford Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Joey August, LF  (Fr., .313, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 1 SB)
2. Jim Rapoport, CF  (Jr., .253, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 2 SB)
3. Chris Minaker, SS  (Sr., .352, 3 HR, 24 RBI, 4 SB
4. Michael Taylor, RF  (So., .311, 1 HR, 16 RBI, 1 SB)
5. Randy Molina, DH  (So., .435, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 0 SB)
6. John Hester, C  (Sr., .219, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 2 SB)
7. Jason Castro, 1B  (Fr., .218, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 2 SB)  or  Brent Milleville, 1B  (Fr., .250, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 0 SB)
8. Chris Lewis, 3B  (Sr., .186, 2 HR, 12 RBI, 1 SB)
9. Cord Phelps, 2B  (Fr., .239, 0 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB)

Fri- Greg Reynolds, RHP  (Jr., 1-2, 3.18 ERA, 45 1/3 IP, 11 BB, 37 SO)
Sat- David Stringer, RHP  (So., 2-2, 4.12 ERA, 19 2/3 IP, 4 BB, 24 SO)
Sun- TBA


PAC-10 STANDINGS

California          3-1    -    15-11
Washington State    2-1   0.5   20-7
USC                 2-1   0.5   15-12
Arizona State       0-0   1.0   21-7
UCLA                0-0   1.0   15-11
Oregon State        1-2   1.5   16-8
Washington          1-2   1.5   18-10
Stanford            1-2   1.5   12-9
Arizona             0-1   1.5   11-13

This Weekend:
* USC at Stanford (Friday-Sunday)
* Arizona State at Washington State (Friday-Saturday)
* UCLA at Washington (Friday-Sunday)
* Arizona at California (Thursday-Saturday)
UT-Pan American at Oregon State (Friday-Saturday)

This Week's Results:
- Tuesday -
Oregon State 6, at Pacific 4
at Portland 8, Washington 5

- Wednesday -
at San Francisco 8, Oregon State 2
Pepperdine 2, at USC 1

- Thursday -
* at California 3, Arizona 2

Notes:
* USC picked up 12 hits, but just one run, in their loss to the 19th ranked Waves on Wednesday evening.

* California's Brandon Morrow improved to 6-0 with eight quality innings of work (5 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 9 SO) in Thursday's narrow victory over Arizona. 

* Washington State held a 1-0, third inning lead over Arizona State on Thursday night in Pullman when a power failure struck.  The game will resume on Friday afternoon to be immediately followed by the second contest of the series.  The finale is still scheduled for Saturday afternoon.

* Arizona and Arizona State will play each other in a single non-conference game on Sunday in Phoenix (at the home of the MLB Arizona Diamondbacks).



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