LAKE ELSINORE -- So, we wondered, has this Trojans baseball program come back? That was the question Sunday at the NCAA elimination game against San Diego State at The Diamond.
Wrong question. For a team that just keeps coming back, "We fought and we fought and we fought," Coach Dan Hubbs was saying of his Trojan team that made it to 39-20 and 2-1 in USC's first NCAA baseball tournament in nine years. He said it between games after scraping from behind again and again and again against San Diego State -- almost always with two outs, for as improbable a 12-11 win as you could possibly hope for.
Which is about all these Trojans seemed to have going for them as their pitching collapsed after jumping out front 7-3 only to fall behind 11-7 in the eighth. Say goodbye to the season, it seemed. Nice try. But not all the way back yet.
Not that that's necessarily a knock. When you're talking about coming all the way back for USC baseball, you're talking about a really long pull. The longest in all of college baseball, actually.
So no, they're not back yet. But if ever there was a game to say they're headed in the right direction, Sunday's San Diego State effort will be the one they remember when they look back at how USC's Trojans, owner of an unequalled 12 national titles, finally got it going in the 21st Century.
Hubbs couldn't have been prouder but on this day, he'd have to join the club as the hundreds of sun-soaked Trojans fans who stayed to the end of Game 1 walked out of here slapping hands and smiling ear to ear. They were glad they were here.
So were we. "Fight On" isn't just a fight song for these guys, it's the way they've learned to scrap from a program that was down and people kept kicking it before Hubbs, the third coach some of these players have had, got them going.
Sure, they don't have enough pitching. Thirteen walks and three hit batters in the Virginia game make that clear. Those walkons and partial scholarships that sustain the state schools aren't as easy to come by at private school, high-tuition USC where the tab runs to nearly $67,000 now for everything.
And yet here they were, scoring five runs the final two innings for the win against the Aztecs and five more to start the second game -- nearly two hours late -- against an unbeaten Virginia team that finished as national runnerup a year ago.
“If that doesn’t get you to love college baseball I don’t know what will," Hubbs said after the first game. "There was no quit on either side . . . They kept coming at us and coming at us, and we would have to answer and come at them. It just seemed like you didn’t know who was going to throw the last punch. And fortunately it was us that did. Tyler Gilbert did a hell of a job in finishing that game off.”
That's what it takes for this team, someone stepping up when you don't think there's a way they can -- or will. Then they do. And then they don't.
"It would have been easy for this team to hang their heads after falling behind 11-7," Hubbs said, "but we fought back. I’m just excited for this team and what they are doing right now.”
It's impossible not to be. And that is like the good old days. Like the way two-sport star Jack Del Rio, in town for his Hall of Fame induction a couple of weeks back, took so much pride in linking up with this baseball team. Sure, this USC team doesn't have a 6-foot-4, 235-pound All-American linebacker like Del Rio at catcher. But then who does these days?
But in senior catcher Garrett Stubbs, just 5-10 and 165 pounds, USC doesn't take a back seat to anyone. Not only is the young man from Del Mar the defensive player of the year in the Pac-12 for his quick accurate arm and soft hands, he can run, steal bases and as he did today, scratch to get on that last inning against his hometown San Diego State team and then score the winning run from first on Jeremy Martinez' double to the fence."
"I thought we could get him," SDSU second baseman Alan Trejo said. But they couldn't. Stubbs beat the ball to home, sliding across the plate in a bit of a dust storm before his teammates caught up with him.
“We have to continue to do what we’re doing," Hubbs said of the back-to-back challenges Sunday. "These kids are 18 to 22 years old so they have the energy to do it. Like I said before, I’ve been through the losers’ bracket before . . . We are going to need more of that today if we’re going to have a chance to get to tomorrow.”
No chance despite that 9-5 lead before UVA scored nine straight for a 14-10 win against a tired Trojan team that couldn't hold on for its 40th win of the season. Trojans scored 22 runs in two games and it wasn't enough. USC would have needed 27 with this pitching and defense.
But then even their offense went away as just two of the final 18 Trojans at the plate reached base. Were they tired? No doubt. But some of that was a result of not showing up Friday in a 6-1 loss to UVA that put them in the loser's bracket.
“I don’t think we’ll come down off this high after the break," Hubbs said hopefuly after Game 1. "I think we will try and continue to build the momentum that we have." And that they did. Until the 20th inning Sunday. And then it went away.
Not all of it. But when it did, you realize you can't rebuild a baseball program in one play or one day. It takes a lot of days and plays. Virginia, in winning its sixth regional in seven years has figured that out. USC, on this day, almost did. And then they didn't.CHECK THIS OUT: For more details and play-by-play on Sunday's San Diego State game, check out LIVE FROM LAKE ELSINORE: USC vs. SDSU.
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