Before Isaac Esqueda even took the mound last week in the Boras Classic for La Puente (Calif.) Bishop Amat, he knew he was dealing with a unique challenge.
Against Corona (Calif.) Santiago, the USC Trojans left-handed pitcher signee was facing a lineup chock full of lefties, including 2019 LSU commit Brice Turang. It seemed to bother Esqueda in the first inning as he was uncharacteristically up in the zone. Santiago collected four hits alternating singles and doubles, but with the help of his defense throwing out Turang at home plate, Esqueda allowed only one run in the inning.
“I just tried to let them hit the ball, make my defense work because I have a pretty good defense,” Esqueda said. “But I left a couple up. That's why they kept hitting it. So I made an adjustment leaving the ball low, so that's when they started chasing it and I started getting ground balls.”
Esqueda also had to make an adjustment for Santiago’s lefty-heavy lineup. His 85-88 mph fastball has natural cut and his 78-79 slider breaks on the same plane, allowing him to nibble off the plate armside against right-handers and forcing them to extend their strike zone to hit the fastball. Against the Sharks he had to flip his approach.
“They are a pretty good ball club. I made an adjustment to make myself pitch against lefties, make them go away,” Esqueda said.
Instead of breaking the ball into the zone on his armside, against the lefties, the 6-foot, 205-pound Esqueda threw pitches on the outside corner and let it break away.
“What gives me more advantage is throwing a little bit more outside, meaning like to the other batter's box, making it look like a strike,” he said. “Also once I had two strikes on them, I could come in with the fastball, maybe jam them get a ground ball out of it, so it helped me a lot.”
Santiago was able to get two runs in the seventh inning as Esqueda tired, nearing the 100-pitch mark. He took a 3-1 loss. Statistically, it was one of his worst starts of the year because five times he has thrown six or more innings without allowing an earned run. But the ability to make adjustments against a tough team will be critical for Esqueda pitching in the Pac-12 at USC.
Originally, he committed to New Mexico, but Esqueda’s stock rose after going 7-3, 1.75 as a sophomore and he decided to open up his recruitment before his junior year (4-2, 0.81). Four months later, Esqueda had picked the hometown Trojans.
“When I first met the coaches, saw the baseball field, met the baseball guys, it made me feel home and it's also close by home so my parents could come watch me play.
“USC has always been my dream school to go to and I just like the ball club and the coaches. They treat the baseball guys as a family and help them develop to make them pros.”
Despite last week’s loss, Esqueda is 4-2, 1.29 this season. He has struck out 64 batters in 49 innings and opponents are hitting just .182 against him. But before he gets to the collegiate level, Esqueda still wants to work on pitching more to weak contact to keep his pitch count low, so he can finish games like last week strong.
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