Two years ago, former USC coach Chad Kreuter signed a recruiting class with several high-profile prospects during the early signing period in November. In contrast, Stanford, which comes to Dedeaux Field for a weekend series beginning tonight at 6 p.m., had a class that didn’t feature as many top-tier prospects.
Infielders Jiovanni Mier, Matt Davidson and Jeffrey Malm, along with pitcher Brooks Pounders, rated top-50 prospects by MaxPreps.com, each signed a National Letter of Intent to play for USC (11-18, 2-4) in 2009.
None, however, ever donned a Trojans jersey. Mier, Davidson and Pounders were selected by pick No. 53 in the 2009 MLB draft and Malm was taken with the 159th selection.
Instead of a nine-player recruiting class that would have been rated in the top 10, USC only signed four players who are still with the program. Of those four, only sophomore infielder Adam Landecker and senior pitcher Logan Odom are consistent starters.
Stanford (14-7, 2-1), on the other hand, brought in 11 players. Two years later, six of the signees from that class are significant contributors for the No. 11 team in the nation, headed by Kenny Diekroeger and Mark Appel.
Diekroeger was the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year last season, after leading the Cardinal with a .356 average and tying for the team lead with 41 RBIs. Appel is Stanford’s Friday night starter as a sophomore.
That signing class shows the discrepancy between USC and Stanford.
Though the Trojans feature a number of players who might one day play professionally, they do not have the depth like the rest of the Pac-10 conference. Six Pac-10 teams are ranked in the Baseball America Top 25, the most of any conference.
“We might not be a top-10 team, but there’s no reason we can’t play like a top-20 team,” said USC interim coach Frank Cruz. “But we have to darn near play perfect — play with more enthusiasm, play with more energy than the other team.”
For Cruz, that starts with the starting pitching. Last weekend against No. 13 California, no Trojans starting pitcher made it through five innings.
“These guys are realizing we can play with any team in the country, but we have to pitch,” Cruz said. “If our pitchers go seven innings, we can be in any game.
Wood made some slight changes in his delivery when he pitched an inning against Loyola Marymount. Cruz is hoping Wood gained confidence from the relief appearance, after he failed to make it out of the first inning of his start against California.
Though the Trojans’ pitching has struggled recently, the bats have started to heat up.
The insertion of sophomore walk-on outfielder J.R. Aguirre has brought a new energy to a lineup that had become stagnant with too many strikeouts.
Cutting down strikeouts are something the coaching staff has been emphasizing and will be a key against Stanford.
“They got power arms, but they don’t have a lot of strikeouts,” said junior outfielder Alex Sherrod. “Because they don’t have a lot of strikeouts, we’re really gonna try to focus on putting the ball in play this weekend.”
Sherrod might finally be back from the ankle injury that sidelined him for the last nine games, according to Cruz, and he is hopeful the junior will at least be able to provide another power bat in the middle of the lineup this weekend, even if he is unable to play the field.
Before he got injured, Sherrod was batting .319 with 16 RBIs, and led the team with four home runs.
Junior first baseman Ricky Oropesa has since taken over the home run lead. His five homers, 22 runs, 29 RBIs and .363 average all lead the team.
“I’m seeing the ball pretty well,” Oropesa said. “Recognizing the pitch to hit and letting the pitcher throw strikes. I’m not trying to do too much with pitches.”
Junior outfielder Garret Houts has also come on strong. He has raised his batting average to .351 after hitting .538 in the last week.
“[Houts] has really been swinging the bat well lately,” Cruz said. “He’s given us another bat in the outfield.”
Stanford is led by Diekroeger’s .414 average and his middle of the infield partner, Lonnie Kauppila. The freshman second baseman is batting .348 after a 15-for-20 week that earned him National Player of the Week honors.
“They’ve got some good players. But we’re ready for them. No surprises,” junior reliever Chad Smith said. “We know all the Pac-10 teams are good and every weekend is a battle. We’re ready to go.”