Freshmen lead Trojans to fast start in 2012

Garrett Stubbs recalls the experience with the slightest smile.

Trojan baseball’s freshman catcher sensation had just heard his name announced over the public address system at Dedeaux Field at the start of the Trojans’ fourth game of the season. On opening night a week before, Stubbs also hit leadoff, had his name called first during lineup announcements and ran out to the foul line, as is customary on opening night. His other teammates in the starting lineup joined him as their names were announced.

On this particular Friday night one week later, Stubbs was again hitting leadoff. The Trojans do not usually run out to the line when their name is announced during pregame and had not in three games since opening night.

Informed by his teammates, however, that all starters ran out to the foul line when their name was announced on Fridays, Stubbs trotted out of the dugout when his name was heard.

Recalls Stubbs, “[My teammates] were all like, ‘Gotcha freshman. We don’t do that kind of stuff.’ So I was kind of put back in my place as a freshman.”

It would be more than understandable for Stubbs to not feel or act like a freshman. In his first four games as a Trojan, Stubbs went 7-16 (.438 average). Toss in three walks on top of that and that’s a .526 on base percentage.

Stubbs and fellow freshman Stephen Tarpley (pitcher) and Dante Flores (second baseman) have been integral parts of the Trojans’ success at the start of the season. The Trojans opened 7-0, their best start since 1988. They then dropped three straight, but have since won back-to-back games to put their record at 9-3.

Tarpley has started all three of the Trojans’ Sunday series finales, and picked up his first career win March 4 against No. 6 North Carolina, going six strong innings, allowing just two runs on four hits, with eight strikeouts to his two walks.

“Tarpley has done really [well]  for us,” said USC coach Frank Cruz following Tarpley’s win on Sunday. “For a freshman to show like that is really great.”

In his young Trojan career, Tarpley has amassed a 3.45 ERA more than 15 2/3 innings pitched, with an incredible 24 strikeouts in those limited innings.

Flores has not had the chance to contribute as much as Stubbs and Tarpley, usually forced out of the lineup by more established and experienced players at his position. Yet he cannot be kept on the bench all the time, because when he is in the game he produces. He has just four hits and one walk on the season, but two of those hits were triples, and he has scored three of the five times he has reached base.

“It’s been so much fun,” said Flores of the start of his career so far. “This whole atmosphere has just been awesome to be around.”

But Stubbs is the “Golden Boy” of the three. And as impressive as his raw numbers have been, Stubbs’ intangibles are really what sets him apart. So far this season, he has played left field, centerfield and catcher and was in fact recruited as a middle infielder, providing valuable versatility.

Even less tangible is Stubbs’ natural ability to make plays. He has covered the outfield gracefully. He has yet to make an error despite having never played there before arriving at USC.

At the plate, he is adept at advancing the runner and putting the ball in play. He did not strike out for his first 20 at-bats of the year and has just four strike-outs in 44 total at-bats.

In the Trojans’ victory over Jacksonville University earlier this season, Stubbs went 0-4, but recorded two RBIs by simply putting the ball in play, twice hitting groundouts up the middle with a runner on third.

“All of us have come together, all of us have been able to contribute and it’s just been great to be a part of,” Stubbs said of his class’ contribution to the season so far. “We’ve gelled together really well as a unit, too. We’re all going to live together next year.”

That’s when they won’t be freshmen. For now, they still are. Even if they don’t play that way.