Baseball Preview: USC

The Cardinal have struggled mightily this season against ranked opponents with just one victory in six games. They'll get another shot at a top-flight club this weekend when the 20th ranked USC Trojans come to town for a three-game series. Stanford has won eight of their last nine overall while USC has claimed four straight series victories. Here is a preview of the non-conference tilt.

Stanford's long winning streak of eight games ended on Tuesday night at Santa Clara with an ugly 13-5 loss to the Broncos.  The Cardinal now sit at 10-6 this year and begin a crucial three-game, non-conference series with the 20th ranked USC Trojans this weekend at Sunken Diamond.  It's a big weekend for Stanford as they look to continue their strong play at home (9-0 record) in their final series before taking 12 days off for final exams.  The Cardinal have struggled against ranked teams this year (1-5) and a series win over the Trojans would be an excellent way to go into the break and carry some momentum into the start of the actual Pac-10 season.

Improved pitching was the biggest reason why Stanford dug themselves out of a 2-5 hole to post eight straight wins.  During the winning streak, the staff compiled an excellent 3.63 ERA with top starters Jeffrey Inman and Jeremy Bleich along with ace closer David Stringer leading the way.  These three pitchers will certainly have to be on their games this weekend for the Cardinal to have a shot at a series victory.

Inman took over as the Friday starter last weekend against California and set the tone with 7 2/3 shutout innings and nine strikeouts as the Cardinal blanked the Golden Bears, 1-0.  In fact, in his last two starts, the freshman from Bakersfield has allowed just one run in 13 1/3 innings with 14 K's.  The hard-throwing right-hander possesses a 3.54 ERA on the season while averaging a strikeout per inning pitched (28 IP, 28 SO). 

Behind Inman in the rotation is the sophomore Bleich.  Bleich picked-up his first win of the year two weekends ago versus Kansas with six solid innings of work (2 R, 7 SO).  Against Cal, the southpaw carried a two-hit shutout into the seventh inning before the Bears roughed him up for four runs.  Still, Bleich, after starting a bit slow on the mound, has looked much better of late and has taken hold of the #2 spot in the weekend rotation.  For the year, Bleich owns a 5.79 ERA and just six walks, compared to 17 strikeouts, in 28 innings.

Meanwhile, it's been the Stringer show in the late innings for Stanford with the junior already notching six saves during the non-conference season.  Just one more save would move Stringer into the Stanford single-season top ten - a very impressive feat considering 2 1/2 months still remain in the regular season.  All total, Stringer has appeared in 11 of the Cardinal's first 16 games this season and has a sparking 2.45 ERA in 14 2/3 innings pitched. 

The Stanford bullpen has, for the most part, struggled during the first month of the regular season, so expect Stringer to pitch in all of the big, late-inning spots until a few other pitchers emerge.  Eight normal weekend relievers for the Cardinal combined to allow 13 runs (11 earned) with ten walks and three hit batters in the loss to Santa Clara on Tuesday night. 

In addition to finding more help for Stringer out of the bullpen, questions still surround Nolan Gallagher as he tries to solidify his spot in the starting rotation.  The junior, who began the year in the Friday position of the rotation, was bumped down to the Sunday role last week against Cal.  Unfortunately for Gallagher, the results weren't much different.  The junior allowed four runs on six hits in just 3 2/3 innings and saw his ERA balloon up to 7.36.  Gallagher featured a nasty breaking ball last Sunday leading to four strikeouts in his short start, but an inconsistent fastball - both with velocity and location - led to another rocky appearance.  Stanford has not yet officially announced a starting pitcher for this Sunday's series finale, but look for Gallagher to again get an opportunity.

This week, the USC Trojans found their name in the Baseball America Top 25 for the first time this year.  The Trojans, at 13-8, have played a tough schedule and have handled themselves very well with four straight series wins: 2-of-3 vs. #22 San Diego, 2-of-3 vs. San Diego State, 2-of-3 vs. Tulane, and a sweep at Georgia last weekend.  USC's only series loss came in their opening weekend of the year when they dropped 2-of-3 in a home-and-home set with now-#19 Long Beach State.

USC is a young team, especially on the pitching side, but it's been their arms leading the way through 21 games.  The Trojans possess a 3.63 team ERA which is second lowest in the Pac-10 behind Oregon State.  And while the Cardinal are receiving solid (if not spectacular efforts, at times) for their top two starting pitchers and closer, the pitchers at USC who fill those roles have been even better.

Opposing Inman on the mound in the series-opener on Friday is sophomore right-hander Ryan Cook.  A tremendous talent, Cook was pushed into the rotation last year and often struggled (4-4, 5.97 ERA).  But with a year of experience under his belt, Cook has stepped into the role of ace hurler for the Trojans and he's not disappointed.  In five starts, Cook is a perfect 3-0 with a 2.43 ERA and .256 opponents batting average.  California's super-sophomore Tyson Ross is more proven, more well-known, and a better prospect, but Cook is quickly moving up the charts when it comes to sophomore pitchers in the Pac-10.  Look for another low-scoring game at Sunken Diamond this Friday when Cook matches up with Inman.

USC's Saturday starting pitcher, however, has put up even better numbers than Cook thus far.  Freshman Brad Boxberger, with the exception of some occasional control problems, has been outstanding through his first five starts of the year.  Boxberger has just one win, but the right-hander owns a 1.84 ERA and .176 opponents batting average.  The Cardinal faced Cook twice last season when he was a member of the starting rotation, but will be looking at Boxberger for the first time this weekend.  The freshman was expected to immediately make an impact on this team after he was named as the top high school pitcher in all of Orange County last spring. 

While the Trojans could be in trouble if they're trailing in the eighth or ninth innings this weekend, the same could definitely be said for Stanford.  The reason is USC closer Paul Koss.  The only pitcher in the Pac-10 with more saves than Stringer, Koss features a 0.84 ERA (1 ER/10.2 IP) and just one walk in 11 appearances of the bullpen.  The senior has saved eight games already and is a proven late-inning hurler (20 saves the previous two seasons).

The new head coach of the Trojans is former major leaguer Chad Kreuter.  Just the fourth head baseball coach at USC in the last 77 years, Kreuter took over for Mike Gillespie after the latter retired at the end of last season.  Kreuter is now in charge of essentially rebuilding this program as the Trojans have missed the NCAA Tournament in three of the last four seasons. 

In 2006, the Trojans got off to a hot start during the first half of the year which included a pair of series victories over Stanford.  But USC limped to the finish line, to say the least, with ten straight losses and a dismal 3-19 record in their last 22 games.  Everything fell apart for the storied program last season with Trojans ending the year at 25-33 and 11-13 in conference action.

Five of the top six hitters from that club moved on plus ace pitcher Ian Kennedy (first round pick) leaving Kreuter with a young team in 2007.  USC was picked to finish sixth in the conference by the Pac-10 coaches, but their strong start has certainly raised some eyebrows and now leads many to believe the Trojans will finish in the top half of the conference and perhaps even challenge for the Pac-10 title.

That lone returning top hitter is a tremendous talent in junior second baseman Matt Cusick.  An All-Pac-10 selection a year ago when he hit .369, Cusick is leading this USC offense with a .359 batting average and .494 on-base percentage.  One of the best pure hitters in the conference, Cusick has struck out just three times in 64 at-bats in addition to stealing a team-best total of seven bases.  Cusick doesn't have much home run power (0 HR in '07), but he's an incredibly tough out and an experienced hitter.

On the whole, USC has not put up big offensive numbers this season.  The Trojans are batting .274 as a team and scoring just 4.8 runs per game (compared to .278 and 5.7 for Stanford).  USC doesn't have a lot of home run power, but Kreuter is very aggressive on the bases and should put pressure on the Cardinal defense all weekend long.  In addition to Cusick, another name to watch in this series is freshman shortstop Grant Green.  One of the top frosh infielders in the country, Green is hitting .329 this year with three triples, two home runs, and 13 RBI.  Green will likely bat second in the order - one spot ahead of Cusick.

Senior first baseman J.J. Owen leads the club with 17 RBI out of the clean-up spot in the order.  Owen received just 15 at-bats all of last season, but is breaking out in his final collegiate season.  Catcher Johnny Bowden is hitting .318 while catcher/DH Robert Stock is one of the top pure talents in the country.  Stock bypassed his senior year of high school and enrolled at USC early to be a part of this 2007 team.  Stock probably would have been the top high school position player prospect in the country if not for the early-enrollement.  The freshman has made 12 starts in the field and has hit three home runs, but has struggled somewhat with his batting average as evident by the .217 mark.  Lately, he's made more of an impact on the mound with his low-to-mid 90's fastball.  In five relief appearances, Stock has a 3.12 ERA spanning 8 2/3 innings.

Finally, the Trojans are expected to send sophomore lefty Tommy Milone to the mound on Sunday.  Like Cook, Milone started during his entire freshman season with mixed results (7-7, 4.94 ERA).  In six starts this year, Milone has a 5.74 ERA, 2-2 record, and a .315 opponents batting average.

#20 USC Trojans (13-8)  at  Stanford Cardinal (10-6)

USC Probable Starting Lineup
1. Nick Buss, CF  (So., .306, 1 HR, 6 RBI)
2. Grant Green, SS  (Fr., .329, 2 HR, 13 RBI)
3. Matt Cusick, 2B  (Jr., .359, 0 HR, 13 RBI)
4. J.J. Owen, 1B  (Sr., .298, 1 HR, 17 RBI)
5. Johnny Bowden, C  (Sr., .318, 1 HR, 5 RBI)
6. Lucas Duda, LF  (Jr., .169, 3 HR, 10 RBI)
7. Hector Estrella, 3B  (Sr., .257, 1 HR, 6 RBI)
8. Robert Stock, DH  (Fr., .217, 3 HR, 6 RBI)  or  Darren Gemoll, DH  (Jr., .409, 0 HR, 4 RBI)
9. Roberto Lopez, RF  (Jr., .333, 0 HR, 2 RBI)

Fri. - Ryan Cook, RHP  (So., 3-0, 2.43 ERA, 33.1 IP, 7 BB, 23 SO)
Sat. - Brad Boxberger, RHP  (Fr., 1-1, 1.84 ERA, 29.1 IP, 17 BB, 20 SO)
Sun. - Tommy Milone, LHP  (So., 2-2, 5.74 ERA, 31.1 IP, 11 BB, 21 SO)

Stanford Probable Starting Lineup
1. Sean Ratliff, CF  (So., .323, 1 HR, 3 RBI)
2. Jason Castro, 1B  (So., .154, 0 HR, 4 RBI)
3. Michael Taylor, RF  (Jr., .250, 2 HR, 10 RBI)
4. Joey August, LF  (So., .281, 0 HR, 8 RBI)
5. Brent Milleville, DH  (So., .282, 0 HR, 8 RBI)
6. Brian Juhl, C  (Jr., .333, 2 HR, 8 RBI)
7. Ryan Seawell, 3B  (Sr., .341, 2 HR, 5 RBI)
8. Cord Phelps, SS/2B  (So., .250, 0 HR, 6 RBI)
9. Adam Sorgi, 2B  (Jr., 2-for-9, 0 HR, 3 RBI)  or  Adam Gaylord, SS  (Fr., .319, 0 HR, 5 RBI)

Fri. - Jeffrey Inman, RHP  (Fr., 2-1, 3.54 ERA, 28.0 IP, 12 BB, 28 SO)
Sat. - Jeremy Bleich, LHP  (So., 1-1, 5.79 ERA, 28.0 IP, 6 BB, 17 SO)
Sun. - TBA

Mark Marquess continues to use a number of different lineups and defensive alignments throughout this non-conference portion of the schedule.  One player who has solidified his spot in the lineup is sophomore center fielder Sean Ratliff.  After receiving just 14 at-bats as a freshman (zero hits and ten strikeouts), Ratliff has burst onto the scene in 2007.  The reigning Pac-10 Player of the Week, Ratliff's season batting average now sits at .323 to go with two doubles, two triples, one home run, and six stolen bases.

Fellow outfielder Michael Taylor has seen a slow increase of his batting average of late thanks to a seven-game hitting streak.  Taylor's ten RBI leads the club.  Meanwhile, left fielder Joey August has seen much more playing time lately with the arm injury to freshman Toby Gerhart.  August has taken hold of the starting job in left and was even batting fourth in the order against right-handed starting pitching last weekend against Cal.  August doesn't have much home run power and the fourth spot will probably go to classmate Jason Castro once he gets back into the groove after his hand injury, but the Oregon native has done a nice job both offensively and defensively.  August has yet to strikeout in 32 at-bats.

It will be interesting to see if Adam Sorgi receives any more playing time this weekend.  Sorgi made the start at second base last Sunday against Cal in what his first start in the field since 2005 because of a torn labrum that knocked him out for all of last season.  Stanford's leading hitter in '05 (.322 AVG) and the top defensive infielder (when healthy) on this year's club, Sorgi would be a huge lift for the Cardinal during the Pac-10 season.  He clearly wasn't 100% on his throws last weekend, but the redshirt junior made a number of excellent plays with his glove and delivered one hit in four at-bats offensively.  Sorgi did not play on Tuesday at Santa Clara (the Broncos did start a left-handed pitcher).

FRIDAY: 5:00 P.M.
SUNDAY: 1:00 P.M.

The Cardinal will take 12 days off after this series for their final exams.  Stanford returns to action on Saturday, March 24th with a single non-conference game versus Sacramento State at Sunken Diamond.  The Cardinal will then travel to Sacramento to face the Hornets on Sunday, March 25th.

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