Blank slate for Trojans

Longtime Major League Baseball Executive Harry Dalton once said one of the greatest things about baseball was that hope rises each spring.

Moving on up · Sophomore righthander Chad Smith will start Saturday’s game against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Smith was a weekday starter a year ago, going 3-4 with a 3.40 ERA in four starts and 18 appearances. - Daily Trojan file photo

“You have the annual rebirth no matter how disastrous the previous year was,” he said.

USC hopes Dalton’s words ring true.

The Trojans are trying to make this year the rebirth of their program as a national powerhouse. The 12-time national champions have gone four years without a winning season, the longest such streak in program history.

Fourth-year USC coach Chad Kreuter is optimistic this team can turn it around as the season opens today with a three-game series at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

“They’re a very formidable opponent,” Kreuter said of the Mustangs, who appeared in the NCAA regionals a year ago. “And we won’t take them lightly.”

Kreuter’s team lost a lot of talent following last season when a number of key players left in the 2009 MLB draft.

Two key Trojans were selected in the first 70 picks of the draft: One was ace Brad Boxberger, who paced last year’s rotation with a team-leading six wins.

Another was Robert Stock, who played a wide variety of roles for USC last year. He served as a catcher and designated hitter. He drove in 30 runs and hit six home runs, the second-highest total on the squad.

Stock also pitched over 77 innings last season. He began the year as the team’s closer and eventually moved into the weekend rotation, finishing with five wins, four saves and a 2.90 ERA.

To overcome those losses, Kreuter relies on what he calls a “conglomerate” of leaders on his roster to keep the team at an even keel.

“There’s a bunch of different guys that we feel can lead us,” Kreuter said. “I feel like we have a more well-rounded club, leadership-wise, than we’ve ever had in the past.”

USC should also be strong on the bump in 2010. The staff includes nine returning pitchers from last year’s squad and a solid class of newcomers.

All three weekend starters are familiar faces.

Sophomore Andrew Triggs will assume the top spot in the rotation after going 5-3 with a 3.96 ERA last season. Fellow sophomore Chad Smith (3-4, 3.40 ERA) and senior Kevin Couture (3-3, 5.66) will join Triggs in the weekend rotation.

Sophomores Ben Mount and Jordan Hershiser, who is returning from Tommy John surgery, could also vie for starts.

Transfer relievers senior Shuhei Fujiya and junior Brett Williams will bolster the staff. Fujiya had nine saves for Northern Iowa last season before the school disbanded its baseball program.

“We have great weekend guys, and a number of pitchers,” Kreuter said. “It just gives us a lot of depth that we need in the staff.”

And Kreuter has the option of using a number of two-way players, including sophomores Alex Sherrod and Brandon Garcia and freshman Richard Stock, Robert’s younger brother.

But USC’s biggest questions heading into the season come at the plate.

The Trojans lost Grant Green, their best hitter in 2009, to the draft. He was selected 13th overall and took his .374 average, 16 stolen bases and 19 extra-base hits — all team-leading totals — with him.

USC will turn to talented sophomore transfer Taylor Wrenn to fill that void. Wrenn had a life-threatening allergic reaction to medication he was taking in January and fell into a coma for three days. He emerged from the situation alive and will miraculously start today.

USC also hopes another sophomore, Ricky Oropesa, can provide the team with power. The Etiwanda High School product led the squad last season with 13 home runs and drove in 48 runs on his way to a  Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American and Pac-10 honorable mention honors.

He will be joined in the lineup by a number of returning players. Senior outfielder Mike O’Neill and senior catcher Keith Castillo provide the Trojans with veteran leadership in the field.

But USC must also contend with a stacked conference. The Trojans were picked to finish eighth in the Pac-10 and will play games against No. 8 UC Irvine, No. 14 Arizona State, No. 23 UCLA and No. 25 Oregon State.

The Trojans have a number of obstacles to climb, but if they can reach Omaha, Neb., they will get one last look at Rosenblatt Stadium, a stadium they have been to time and again.

Grant Tunkel and Pedro Moura contributed to this report.