Trojans hope for rebound

Senior captain Joe De Pinto is tired of hearing about the USC baseball team’s struggles during his three seasons.

“That’s always in the back of our minds, but the important thing is to forget about it,” De Pinto said. “It’s a new year.”

Shouldering the load - USC will rely heavily on its power-hitting first baseman Ricky Oropesa, a preseason All-American, who finished with 20 home runs as a sophomore in 2010. | Daily Trojan

With a new year comes the opportunity to put the past to rest and start afresh, which is exactly what the Trojans will try to do in 2011.

The 12-time national champions have gone five years without a winning season. Previously, USC had never managed more than three consecutive seasons without playing above .500.

The mood, however, is different this year at Dedeaux Field, where the Trojans will open their season against Missouri tonight at 6 p.m.

The placement of Frank Cruz as the interim head coach has breathed new life into what had become a stale program.

“We’re really looking for energy on the field,” Cruz said. “The biggest difference you’ll see is the energy level that their playing with right now.”

Cruz was a volunteer coach the past two seasons after being the head coach at Loyola Marymount for 12 seasons from 1997 to 2008. He replaces Chad Kreuter, who was 111-117 during his four seasons as head coach.

“Coach Cruz has really focused on everybody being really accountable for things,” said preseason All-American junior first baseman Ricky Oropesa. “He’s really picky about doing the little things right.”

Cruz said attention to detail and executing the small tasks are the Trojans’ keys to success.

“It might be a corny phrase but we’re really trying to play the games one pitch at a time,” Cruz said. “I think we have improved our small ball execution, but you have to be with the new bats.”

The new Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution bats the NCAA has mandated are designed to cut down on the “pop” of aluminum bats, making them more like wood bats.

Hitters and pitchers have seen a noticeable difference in the way the ball comes off the new bats.

“Everyone is complaining about the pop,” Oropesa said. “All the pitchers love it. It’s going to be a pitcher dominant season all across the season.”

For the Trojans, that puts the onus on a pair of juniors at the front of the weekend rotation.

Andrew Triggs will again be USC’s Friday night starter. He earned All-Pac-10 honorable mention honors last season with a 3.95 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 70 2/3 innings despite compiling only a 2-7 record.

Behind him will be newcomer Austin Wood, who spurned an offer from the Tampa Bay Rays after he was drafted out of St. Petersburg Community College in the fourth round of last year’s MLB draft.

Wood is a prototypical power pitcher constantly in the 92-96 miles per hour range, according to Cruz. He spent the summer pitching in the Cape Cod Baseball League, where he was named an All-Star thanks to a 3-0 record and a 0.58 ERA.

Senior Logan Odom will round out the rotation while junior Ben Mount and senior Chris Mezger will likely be Cruz’s top options as midweek starters.

At the backend of the game, Cruz is hoping more defined roles will help the bullpen perform better this season. The closer’s role has been handed over to junior Chad Smith after he bounced back and forth between the rotation and bullpen last season.

On the offensive side, the Trojans will lean heavily on Oropesa, who lead the team with a .353 batting average, 20 home runs and 67 RBI last season.

“He is our power source,” Cruz said.

But the left-handed slugger will need protection in the lineup. Cruz said he is hoping the combination of De Pinto and infielder Matt Foat and outfielder Alex Sherrod — both juniors — can do the job.

“In the past, Joe [De Pinto] has batted first and second,” Cruz said, “But he is really one of our better hitters so we want to put him in position to drive in some more runs.”

With De Pinto moving into the middle of the lineup, Cruz hopes his corner outfield trio of sophomore Alex Glenn, senior Matt Hart and junior Garrett Houts will be able to set the table batting in the top two spots of the lineup.

James Roberts and Omar Cotto Lozada are two freshman that could make an immediate impact for the Trojans. Roberts will start the season as the starting shortstop, while Lozada could be used in a variety of ways late in the game, as one of the fastest players in college baseball.

Unlike in years past, USC isn’t one of the Pac-10 favorites, picked ninth in the preseason poll.

“I think we’re going to surprise some guys in the conference and the country. I expect a lot of things from these guys,” Oropesa said.

USC is scheduled to play North Carolina tomorrow at 7 p.m. and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Sunday at 3 p.m. as part of the round-robin USC Tournament that will begin today at 10 a.m.