After outfielders junior Alex Sherrod and sophomore Alex Glenn, both Georgia natives, hit USC’s first six long balls this season, Oropesa hit his first two homers of the season over the weekend against rival UCLA.
The preseason All-American will look to continue a recent hot hitting streak today when the Trojans (9-15) take on UC Irvine (14-6) and a familiar face in former coach Mike Gillespie at 3 p.m. at Dedeaux Field.
Oropesa started the season slow, hitting .250 with only five runs batted in through the first 11 games. But USC interim coach Frank Cruz wasn’t worried. It was almost expected.
“Rick traditionally starts slow. It takes him a little bit of time to find his swing and get in the groove,” Cruz said in an interview earlier this month.
His freshman year, Oropesa hit a woeful .083 with two RBIs the first 12 games before finishing the season with a .314 batting average and a team-best 13 home runs and 48 RBIs.
Last year, it was a .176 start and five RBIs through the first nine games. Oropesa finished with 20 homers and 67 RBIs.
In the 12 games since the beginning of spring break, the slugging first baseman has hit .500 (23-for-46) with 13 RBI. He was named the Pac-10 Player of the Week yesterday after going 9-for-17 last week, including 6-for-13 against No. 24 UCLA.
Now that Oropesa has a couple of home runs under his belt, he feels like he’s finally got his swing where he wants it.
“I think I’m getting loose. It takes me a couple of [at bats],” Oropesa said. “It’s getting this rhythm up and staying with the same approach: taking good quality at bats and getting my pitch to hit.”
Oropesa will try to use his bat to help extend UC Irvine’s recent slide. After starting the season 13-1, the Anteaters have dropped five of their last six games, including a three-game sweep at Gonzaga over the weekend.
During its current five-game losing streak, UC Irvine has scored only four runs. It was shut out the last two games and hasn’t scored a run in 26 innings.
Freshman left-hander Kyle Richter will be charged with trying to continue UC Irvine’s hitting struggles. Richter, who has made eight relief appearances, will get his first career start as a Trojan.
“By the time he leaves USC, we have confidence he’ll be a weekend starter,” Cruz said. “So we’re going to give him an opportunity to work toward that now and see how he does.”
Though normally a coach would look forward to facing a team in the midst of a losing streak, Cruz adamantly disagreed.
“Hell no. I wish they would have won 10 in a row,” he said. “With coach [Mike] Gillespie, you know they will be prepared, especially after losing four in a row.”
Cruz said it’s “very difficult” facing off against Gillespie. He lists Gillespie as one of his closest friends and said he talks to him weekly. The two have known each other for more than 20 years, since Cruz was coaching at University High School and Gillespie was recruiting his players while coaching at the College of the Canyons, and later at USC.
Gillespie led USC to the 1998 national championship and three World Series appearances during his 20-year tenure as the Trojans head coach from 1987 to 2006.
From 1993 to 1996, Cruz served as an assistant coach under Gillespie before taking over his first collegiate head coaching job at Loyola Marymount.
“[Gillespie’s] probably the single most important influence in coaching and the reason I am coaching at ’SC today,” Cruz said. “It makes you elevate to the next level when you coach against a Hall of Famer.”
Cruz might be Gillespie’s understudy, but don’t expect Gillespie to take it easy on his former assistant.
“Everyone loves him because of how humble he is, but when he gets between the lines, his game face is on. The last thing he’ll be thinking about is our friendship,” Cruz said. “You have to be sharp or he’ll exploit you in a heartbeat.”