The last time USC and UCLA entered a series with top-10 rankings was in 2000 when Mark Prior, Rik Currier and Anthony Reyes were leading the rotation for a squad that eventually reached the College World Series.
Fast forward 15 years, and the starting trio of Brent Wheatley (2-1, 2.18 ERA), Kyle Twomey (5-1, 2.05 ERA) and Mitch Hart (5-0, 2.93 ERA) are next in line for the equally important showdown between No. 6 UCLA and No. 8 USC.
Both teams are tied in the loss column in conference play, which means the winner of this series will have the inside track on the conference title. Unlike most leagues in college baseball, the Pac-12 does not have a conference tournament so the regular season winner automatically qualifies for postseason play.
“We’re gonna have to get a big hit against a really good pitcher. That’s gonna be the name of the game,” USC head coach Dan Hubbs said this week.
This weekend’s matchup will be a battle of strength against strength, pitting the Bruins’ (23-6, 10-2) top-ranked pitching staff (2.22 ERA) against the Trojans’ (25-7, 7-2) second-best offense that averages over 6.5 runs per game.
The Bruins play fundamental baseball. They don’t make mistakes, they avoid walking opposing batters and their offense can score in bunches.
The last time these teams met, USC was riding sky high with an impressive 8-4 win capping off an undefeated slate in the Dodgertown Classic. UCLA was on the other end of a tough tournament, dropping all three games. But the Bruins have bounced back rather nicely, winning 12 of their last 14 games by allowing three or fewer runs in 10 of those contests. Coach John Savage can really craft a pitching staff led by James Kaprielian (6-2, 2.09 ERA) and Grant Watson (5-2, 1.53), who owns the Pac-12’s best ERA among starters but lost to USC earlier this year, along with closer David Berg in the backend of a solid bullpen.
While USC has won four-straight against UCLA, head coach Dan Hubbs knows what to expect from the suddenly-surging Bruins.
“The biggest thing when you play them (UCLA) is that they are relentless,” Hubbs said. “You have to pitch well because you know they are going to pitch well.”
One interesting note about Savage is that the current UCLA head coach was honored as Collegiate Baseball’s Assistant Coach of the Year for USC back in 1998 (when the Trojans’ last won the College World Series) and helped recruit the top-ranked class in the country in 2000 for coach Mike Gillespie.
Now UCLA has returned to its roots, and USC is not real far behind them in terms of regaining confidence after an incredible 15-1 start to the season. Despite a one-run loss to No. 11 UCSB on Tuesday night, the Trojans have still won 8 of their last 10 games, averaging over six runs in that span. The catalyst has been Bobby Stahel, who has been hitting on an unearthly level right now.
“He’s been awesome for us,” Hubbs said. “It just makes our lineup a lot longer and when he doesn’t get a hit these days, people are shocked.”
Over the course of his recent 15-game hitting streak, that actually started the week following the Dodgertown Classic, Stahel has collected two or more hits in 13 of his last 14 games, bumping his average up to .435 overall. When you talk with Stahel about his success, the Palos Verdes High School product focuses on his up the middle approach, taking advantage of good pitches and driving them right through the hole. For a kid who only had 38 hits over his first two seasons, bouncing in and out of the lineup, watching Stahel erupt into an elite leadoff hitter (54 hits) has added even more depth to the nightly batting order.
The way things stack up, USC can go 1-through-6 in the order with legitimate offensive weapons that can carry your team on a given night. Let’s not forget that David Oppenheim hits seventh in the lineup and has reached base in 27 of the 29 games he’s played. Plus, while A.J. Ramirez has struggled lately, the No. 8 hitter boasts a team-high four homeruns and eight doubles.
USC may not boast the same level of success playing on Pac-12 Networks compared to last year (10-1), but the Trojans will have plenty of chances this weekend, starting with Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. “We’ve been in big games before and I’m looking forward to how our guys respond,” Hubbs said.
When these teams first met, the Trojans were looking to establish themselves as legit contenders. This time around, the reputation has been etched in stone and we’ll see whether USC can establish themselves as one of the nation’s best.
“It’s nice to see the progress that we’ve made, we just have to continue it,” Hubbs says about his program, mid-way through his third season as head coach. “And if we do, then we will be able to look back and enjoy it.”
The Trojans will need solid starting pitching this weekend, especially as the Bruins can match almost any team in the nation with power arms. Over the last two weeks, the bullpen has been heavily tested with innings. Right now, USC has some steady arms to lean on with Jeff Paschke, Alex Chavarria and Tyler Gilbert anchoring the long relief efforts. Then you mix in junior left hander March Huberman, who has probably taken the biggest step of any pitcher on the club, and you have a stout closer with a 1.07 ERA in 15 outings.
Expect UCLA to be aggressive on the base paths, but USC has done an excellent job slowing down the opposing team’s running game; led by senior Garrett Stubbs behind the plate. The Trojans have been less aggressive in the stolen base department (averaging one per game in Pac-12 play), but assistant coach Matt Curtis has shown an affinity to manufacture runs with more hit-and-run calls and traditional small ball laying down bunts.
This series will have a different feel than most in USC-UCLA history, mostly due to the overwhelming amount of events that are taking place this weekend. Due to Pac-12 Networks scheduling, Friday’s game has been moved up, while Saturday’s game will take place after the Football Spring Game at 7 p.m.
The Trojans match up very well with UCLA based on their strong pitching depth and relatively solid defense, but this series will be won with clutch hits in the batter’s box. And if USC can pull out a series win here at Dedeaux Field, the long road back to Omaha will become even more clear.