The USC Trojans return to Dedeaux Field tonight to take on the Towson Tigers to open the 2015 season. The Trojans are coming off a season that saw them basically fall one win shy of making the NCAA tournament field as an at-large team.
After a strong finish to the season, defeating No. 1 Oregon State in a weekend series that was punctuated by the impressive complete game performance of closer Kyle Davis, who took the ball on the final day of the regular season and absolutely shoved. In his first start of the season, Davis threw a 14-strikeout complete game and did not allow an earned run in a 3-1 victory that won the series.
But USC’s strong finish wasn’t enough. Instead of the Trojans, UC Irvine, a team with a very similar resume limped into the NCAA regionals. It appears that by proxy of Irvine having won a pair of midweek games against USC earlier in the year, the Anteaters got the nod instead of the cardinal and gold.
That has been the motivation all offseason for the Trojans. Every batting cage session and weight room rep has been with that in the back of the players’ minds.
“They’ve come back with the mindset that they don’t really want to leave it up to the [NCAA selection] committee,” USC head coach Dan Hubbs said. “They don’t want to leave it to chance. They want to force the issue.”
Since returning from winter break and being able to get back out on the field, Hubbs has seen a renewed energy from his squad as this year’s veteran club prepares to try to break the school’s unprecedented nine-year postseason drought.
“I think their mindset has been great. They’re practicing hard. They’re focused on playing the game right — playing it hard and playing it well,” Hubbs said. “Just like I tell them, it doesn’t matter who we play, if we play well, we’re going to be in the game. We just have to take advantage and make the least mistakes. When we need to execute, execute. And when we need a big hit, someone has to step up and come through.”
Here’s how the Trojans will likely line up this season:
The Trojans have a pair of excellent catchers in senior Garrett Stubbs and sophomore Jeremy Martinez. Expect both to be on the field somewhere in every game.
Stubbs gives the team versatility and athleticism at the spot. He isn’t your prototypical catcher. He doesn’t look the part of the Jake Taylor or Jack Parkman catcher from the Major League movies at all. He’s a wiry 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, but he strokes line drives and uses his athleticism behind the plate to block well and quickly get out of the blocks when trying to throw people out.
Martinez arrived on campus last year with the distinction of being the best hitter on the team before taking an at bat. He lived up to his High School All-American hype by producing a Freshman All-American season, batting .297 with 10 doubles, a home run and 29 RBI while starting 50 of the Trojans’ 52 games. He only struck out 14 times in 185 at bats, which is an even more impressive feat for a freshman.
Martinez and Stubbs are the two top returning hitters and had the team’s best on base percentages of any consistent starters last year.
USC will play a number of guys at first base from Martinez to senior Dante Flores and junior AJ Ramirez as well as possibly Jef Paschke and Joe Corrigan. Flores is one of the wild cards of this team. He’s been hampered by injuries the last two years after hitting .310 in 44 games as a freshman. He hit just .236 last year, but has been swinging the bat well in the offseason and Hubbs expects big things from him this season.
Flores will also play some second base and when he does, Ramirez will be one of the players to be given a look at first base. As with much of the team, Ramirez also possesses multiple-position versatility. He could see time in the outfield where he’s seen time previously. Hubbs said that Ramirez will begin the season as the Trojans’ leadoff hitter. While he’s no speedster and not the prototypical leadoff, Ramirez does work the counts well and will allow his teammates to see some pitches early in the game.
While Flores could see the majority of the time at second base, Duke transfer Angel La Bruna will also be in the mix for both middle infield positions. The redshirt senior from La Canada, Calif. had to sit out last season after transferring home from across the country. La Bruna started 36 games as a sophomore in the highly competitive ACC and hit .301 in the New England Collegiate Baseball League this summer, so don’t expect him to shy away from the bright lights.
Reggie Southall batted a respectable .250 in 35 games (22 starts) as a redshirt freshman last year and will now takeover the primary shortstop role as Blake Lacey moves over to third base. Southall and La Bruna will split time at shortstop, but also play together in the middle infield on occasion. They could also both sit if the bat of slick-fielding sophomore Frankie Rios comes around. Rios started 19 games as a true freshman out of Long Beach Poly last year.
Gone is Mr. Reliable, Kevin Swick, who had been entrenched at the position for seemingly eight years. Lacey moves over to the hot corner and has received rave reviews from the coaching staff on his transition. Lacey missed the beginning of last season with a serious back injury and needed a little time to shake the rust off, but ended up batting .281 in 43 games after hitting .291 his freshman season. Don’t be surprised if he has a breakout campaign this year.
After two years of being a spot replacement and a pinch hit weapon, Bobby Stahal looks to take over a full-time starting role in left field. Stahal will give the Trojans patience at the bottom of the lineup. He won’t waste at bats, as is evidenced by his .458 on base percentage last season — highest of any batter with more than 20 at bats.
Timmy Robinson had to leave the Cape Cod League this summer after injuring his shoulder and needing to have surgery, but he’s back and swinging the bat well. Hubbs said the highly regarded Robinson will bat clean up for USC to start the season. Robinson has hit .242 and .236 his first two seasons and shown flashes of pop and speed, but the Trojans need him to put it all together and be the complete package this season.
The Trojans have a pair of veteran, if not experienced, options in right field with Omar Cotto Lozada and Turner Clouse. Both have had opportunities in the past, but have not done enough to warrant staying in the lineup. Both have draft potential, if they can put things together this season, particularly the lightning quick Cotto Lozada. Junior college transfer David Oppenheim has also swung the bat well this spring and could vie for immediate playing time as well. He hit .377 for the College of the Canyons last season.
With so many players battling for positions, there will inevitably be times when Hubbs wants to get both players into the lineup and that’s where he’ll use the designated hitter. Flores, Ramirez and Martinez will all get starts at designated hitter throughout the season. Hubbs also pointed out newcomers Angelo Armenia and Adalberto Carrillo as freshmen that have swung the bat well in practice and could see some at bats sooner rather than later.
The Trojans lost a pair of veteran arms from their starting rotation with the graduation of lefty Bob Wheatley and the drafting of Wyatt Strahan, who was the Trojans’ top draft selection, going in the third round to the Cincinnati Reds. Replacing them will eventually be Kyle Davis. That’s the plan at least. Unfortunately, a sprained ankle has delayed those plans.
Instead of getting the ball on Opening Day like he did in the season finale, Davis will begin the season out of the bullpen in his familiar closer role until they can build his arm strength up to where it needs to be. Hubbs is aiming for potentially the fourth week of the season as a potential move-to-the-rotation date for Davis.
Without Davis starting on the weekend, Hubbs will instead give the ball to Brent Wheatley, Bob’s younger brother that solidified the weekend rotation in the second half of the conference schedule last season, to start tonight’s opener. Then it will be the big-time prospect, Kyle Twomey, who struggled with command when he was thrust into the rotation as a freshman two years ago. But last year, he teamed with Davis for a dynamic one-two, lefty-righty combination at the backend of the bullpen shutting down games. He’ll be counted on to carry that momentum back into the rotation this year. Santa Barbara City College transfer Tyler Gilbert will round out the weekend rotation for USC to open the year.
Freshman right hander Mitch Hart gives Hubbs a flexible power arm that could start midweek games or be a setup man for Davis at the end of games. He’s joined by lefty Marc Huberman in the bullpen. Huberman, with his low 90s heater from a three-quarters slot, could take over the closer role once Davis moves into the starting rotation. Other returners include Brooks Kriske, who logged the third most innings (33.1) of any reliever behind Davis and Twomey, Paschke and Bernardo Flores.
Hubbs also was high on freshmen Mason Perryman and Brad Wegman, who he said have the potential to get some midweek starts by the end of the season. With the Trojans playing nine games in the first 12 days of the season, Hubbs expects a number of pitchers to get an opportunity to showcase their stuff.