When USC coach Chad Kreuter jogged to the pitcher’s mound with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning Sunday afternoon, he wanted reliever Chad Smith to relax. He also wanted to assure the sophomore he could get UCLA left fielder Cody Keefer out by pitching him low and outside.
Apparently, Smith did not listen.
Two pitches after the meeting, Smith shook off sophomore catcher Kevin Roundtree and went against the coaching staff’s pitch selection, choosing to throw an inside fastball. Keefer turned on the pitch and lined it over the right field wall for a walk-off, two-run home run that gave the Bruins (37-11, 13-8) a 2-1 victory and series sweep of USC (23-28, 5-16) at Jackie Robinson Stadium.
“We’re baffled as a coaching staff,” Kreuter said. “That was a pitch he should have never thrown. That’s a cardinal sin. You don’t throw [inside] with the winning run at the plate with two out in the ninth inning.”
Kreuter placed blame on both Smith and Roundtree for not following the instructions he imparted during the mound visit.
“They have to trust that we’ve got a good scouting report,” Kreuter said. “We chart all the pitches and see what we’ve got guys out on. That should not have happened. It just shouldn’t have happened.”
Up until the final pitch of the game, the only scoring occurred in the fourth inning when freshman Cade Kreuter launched a 1-0 fastball from Rob Rasmussen over the left-centerfield fence for a home run.
Rasmussen allowed only six hits while striking out eight batters in seven innings, but senior starting pitcher Kevin Couture’s second consecutive strong performance had USC on the verge of salvaging one win against its rivals before Keefer’s homer.
“Couture went through a rut [earlier in the season] where everyone was hitting everything off him, but today he pitched to the corners and kept the ball down probably the best he has all year,” coach Kreuter said. “I’m extremely proud of him.”
Couture threw five scoreless innings while allowing only two hits Sunday, following a six inning outing against Long Beach State. He gave up only two runs on six hits in the Wednesday night start against the Dirtbags.
But Couture didn’t get a win in either game as limited run support and bullpen woes haunted the Trojans.
Against Long Beach, USC managed only four hits and one run – a line drive home run by senior outfielder Mike O’Neill.
In the series against their crosstown rival, USC was outscored 30-10 with seven of those runs coming Friday night. Despite roughing up Bruins’ ace Gerrit Cole for five runs in five innings Friday night, the Trojans fell 13-7. Sophomore slugger Ricky Oropesa knocked four hits in the series opener and drove in four runs, including two on a towering home run that bounced off the Gifford Hitting Facility beyond the right field wall.
But USC couldn’t overcome a short outing by sophomore starter Ben Mount (three innings pitched, three earned runs) and six runs allowed by the bullpen.
It was more of the same Saturday. Junior starter Chris Mezger was knocked around for 10 hits and eight runs – six earned – in only four and one-third innings pitched; the bullpen allowed an additional seven runs; and the offense was unable to string together hits, leaving 15 men on base and scoring only two runs.
All of which made Sunday’s heartbreaking loss even more devastating.
“That hurts because it’s stolen away from you with two outs in the ninth,” coach Kreuter said. “There’s more disappointment because we had the game won.”
Prior to the current four-game losing streak, USC had won six of seven, including two of three from Arizona, who was nationally ranked No. 19 at the time. Kreuter hoped his team would carry the momentum of a three-game sweep of Utah into the games against Long Beach and UCLA.
The Trojans are now buried at the bottom of the Pac-10 conference standings. Sitting three and one-half games behind the next closest team with only six conference games remaining, USC will need help to avoid finishing last in the conference for the second time in Kreuter’s four-year tenure — and only the third time in the last 80 years.