USC Baseball Poised for Success in 2014|
Feb. 10, 2014
Play for each other. It may seem like a cliché saying, but the USC baseball team is living the phrase in 2014. This season's tight-knit squad may seem young with 23 freshman and sophomores, but with 15 of those student-athletes gaining significant playing time on the diamond as freshmen in 2013, second-year head coach Dan Hubbs is looking for the Trojans to use that experience to propel the program back to winning ways in 2014.
"I think that being so young last year prepared us for this year. A lot of guys gained experience both on the mound and at the plate. We return all but 25 innings on the mound and seven starters on the field. Overall we had a great fall with a lot of competition, so we are expecting good things out of this team," explained Hubbs, who received a contract extension in the summer of 2013.
This spring expect a lot of familiar faces out on the diamond for the Trojans as they are expected to be a lot stronger because of their experience. In 2013, the Trojans lost 12 games by one or two runs and were in countless other games where the scored was either tied or a one-run game in the seventh that they eventually lost. One reason for this was the Trojans entered the season with only about 120 innings of collegiate experience on the mound. This spring it's a different story, as the Trojans return closer to 600 innings of college pitching experience.
"Out of this change, two things are going to happen," explained Coach Hubbs. "Some guys aren't going to play that played last year because we are hoping that the competition elevated some guys and they made big strides. Some guys got much better than others and we expect that group to play at a much higher level. This season you are going to see a more consistent group of guys playing the entire time, which I think will make us stronger."
Leading the way on the offensive side is senior infielder Kevin Swick, who owns the highest returning batting average from 2013 of .305, along with a healthy junior infielder Dante Flores. The Trojans will also rely heavily on five sophomore bats in outfielders Timmy Robinson, Vahn Bozoian and Bobby Stahel, along with infielders AJ Ramirez and Blake Lacey. Lacey leads all returners with 26 RBI from 2013. A healthy Omar Cotto Lozada is also an asset for the Trojans because of the speed on the base paths that he provides.
"When we look at our potential defensive alignment, we have Kevin Swick at third, Blake Lacey at short, Dante Flores at second and first base is up in the air right now. We are looking at Jake Hernandez, Joe Corrigan, Jeff Paschke, AJ Ramirez and Turner Clouse to fill that spot. Behind the plate we have, Garrett Stubbs and Jeremy Martinez. Stubbs gives us a lot of flexibility as he can play multiple positions and we think Jeremy gives us a great option at catcher if we decide to do that. Frankie Rios will also be in the mix at second, third and short. When we talk about the outfield, you have Timmy Robinson in center, Vahn Bozoian in right and either Turner Clouse, Bobby Stahel or Omar Cotto Lozada in left."
A highlight for the Trojans behind the dish is Stubbs, who led the Pac-12 in runners caught stealing with 23 last season to earn All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors. Stubbs, a junior, along with freshman phenom Martinez and senior Hernandez will handle a pitching staff that returns the entire weekend rotation from 2013 and looks to be a strength for the Trojans this season.
Senior left-hander Bob Wheatley, the Trojans ace last season, finishing with a 2.78 ERA in 77.2 innings pitched. He showed great command, walking zero or one batter in nine of his 13 starts. Junior power righty Wyatt Strahan emerged as a frontline starter in 2103, boasting a team-low ERA of 2.45, while going 4-3 in 80.2 innings of work. Sophomore left-hander Kyle Twomey, a Sunday starter last season is also in the mix this year, having struck out a team-high 50 batters in 71.1 innings of work. Junior righty Nigel Nootbaar, who led the team with three saves in 2013 is also a strong starter candidate, evidenced by a 12-strikout performance in a spot start at Fresno State last spring. Sophomore righties Brent Wheatley and Kyle Davis also have starting potential for the Trojans. Brent Wheatley made five starts last season, including combining with returner Sean Silva for the first one-hitter in school history since 1996. Davis made only one start last year, but led the team with 22 appearances out of the pen.
"We have six guys vying for the three weekend starting spots," Hubbs said. "If the season started today, we are talking about Strahan and Bob Wheatley, one and two. We haven't necessarily figured out which day they will go, and as of today, other guys that are in the mix are Nootbaar, Twomey, Davis and Brent Wheatley."
"The bullpen will then be determined by those four guys vying for the last two starting slots and Mark Huberman. I think that will be a big part of what is probably our top seven pitchers. Freshmen Jeff Paschke, Aaron Digiamarino and Bernardo Flores will also factor in, along with sophomores Brooks Kriske and Sean Adler. As for the closer role, any one of those guys could step up. Whoever isn't the Sunday guy will also be in the mix."
"I think we are also in a position where we probably have a Tuesday starter this year and then we will be able to designate roles for the seventh, eighth and ninth. How that all shakes out will probably be determined in the first two weeks of spring practice, explained Hubbs."
Overall, the Trojans will look to their pitching and defense to be their strengths in 2014. A point of focus this past fall was the offensive side of the ball, and with the help of first year assistant coach Matt Curtis, fourth year assistant coach Gabe Alvarez and volunteer assistant Vinny Lopez, Hubbs feels that the Trojan offense should be much improved this spring.
"I think that offensively we should be pretty strong in the middle of the lineup," said Hubbs. "Our ability to score runs will be predicated on how well we execute situationally. We have some average team speed, so we are just going to have to do a good job of getting good jumps, being able to read ball in dirt and taking those extra 90 feet when we can. I think we got better this fall and we expect it to show in the spring."
Hubbs also added that the addition of former Cal State Northridge head coach Curtis to the staff has provided a lot of structure to the offense.
"Coach Curtis gives them a good plan at the plate and I think the guys have really embraced what he brings, both as a coach and having a vision of how the offense will run," Hubbs explained.
The 2014 schedule is tough for the Trojans, boasting 18 of 54 games against six different teams that made the 2013 postseason, including two College World Series teams. In addition to the perennially tough Pac-12 schedule, this year's team will face off in a nonconference series against 2013 NCAA Regional team Cal Poly, along with midweek contests against local rival Cal State Fullerton, a 2013 NCAA Super Regional team.
"We are excited that we are playing another tough schedule, something that you expect when you come to USC. We are really excited. It's challenging, but I think we are up to the task. We open up with a significant amount of games at home. We are excited to bring quality opponents to Dedeaux Field and hopefully gain a home field advantage as we get a good start to the season," Hubbs noted.
From top to bottom, the Trojans are embracing their roles on the team, and that can come in a lot of different ways.
Hubbs explained, "For some guys as a starter it is easy to embrace a role. Are you that reliever out of the pen? Are you the closer? Are you the guy that gets the ball to the closer? Are you the guy that is the pinch hitter? The pinch runner? Everybody has been good about that and carving out their own roles."
This fall the Trojans got a jump on the competition as they scrimmaged the University of San Diego and Long Beach State, taking one win and one loss as they gained an idea of what their particular roles within the team may be.
On the fall competitions, Hubbs said, "I thought that the energy was great in the dugout both games. It was nice for the guys to get some feedback of where they are. I think we played pretty well. In the game that we won, we scored some runs and in the game that we lost we left guys on base where we just needed to have some contact to score runs. We talked about that as stuff we need to improve on coming into the spring."
Bringing it back to this season's focus of playing for each other and being team oriented, Hubbs exclaimed, "I know everyone says that, but this year's team is really living that concept. I think that is coming across when we play. They are understanding that a ground ball to second with a runner on third and less than two outs is just as good sometimes as a single. We just need to find ways to score runs, because we are confident that the pitchers are going to be able to do a good job and hold the score close. No matter who we face, we feel like our pitching staff should keep us in every game and it's just a matter of doing what we need to do to score those runs."
With this young, yet experienced team, and a fresh coaching staff with a new approach, these new-look Trojans are poised to ride their team-first attitude to a successful season, as the winningest program in Division I college baseball is poised for a comeback in 2014.