USC has a chance to redeem its opening-day loss on Wednesday when the Trojans host a rematch against No. 13 Cal State Fullerton.
Since defeating the Trojans 3-2 to launch the season, the Titans have been “running on all cylinders,” USC head coach Dan Hubbs said. Fullerton climbed five spots in the NCAA rankings this weekend and boasts both a 10-1 record — losing for the first time Sunday — and a spotless winning percentage on the road.
The Trojans (6-5) return to Dedeaux after a losing road series against Fresno State, which started with a victorious 9-1 slugfest but culminated in a 14-3 blowout.
“If we learned something from [the loss] then it’s not bad that it happened this early in the season,” Hubbs said. “Fresno showed us how to be relentless offensively and kick a team when they’re down. We need to learn how to do that.”
The Trojans have sparked some life into bats that were silent in their first meeting with the Titans. Their team batting average has steadily climbed to .289 but, despite the progress, the Trojans have accumulated new offensive woes — namely, leaving runners on base.
In the two losses to Fresno State this weekend, the Trojans pulled together a combined 17 hits that produced only four runs, while stranding 20 runners.
“We’ve been hitting the ball well. We’ve had a lot of hard contact. We’ve been way better and tougher outs with two strikes,” Hubbs said. “It’s just a matter of getting the big hit.”
That big hit might come off a different bat this Wednesday, as Hubbs will be sending out a younger team than usual to combat a recent string of injuries.
Sophomore first baseman Dante Flores was out for the weekend with a sore wrist and underwent an MRI on Monday. If he isn’t ready to play Wednesday, Hubbs said freshman AJ Ramirez — who is hitting .379 on the season — will step in. Senior first baseman Adam Landecker is day-to-day with a pulled hamstring and will not play against the Titans, but Hubbs is hopeful he will be ready to start this weekend. For now, freshman Blake Lacey will take his spot.
Additionally, sophomore catcher Garrett Stubbs left Friday’s game after a home-plate collision and will be replaced by junior Jake Hernandez. Redshirt senior outfielder Greg Zebrack returns after a brief stint with the flu, and usual Saturday starter Wyatt Strahan is expected to re-join the rotation this weekend after taking a precautionary rest for a stiff shoulder.
Hubbs said he hasn’t been able to wrap his head around who will start in the outfield and that he will figure out who fills in as designated hitter when he finalizes his lineup. Hernandez spent the Fresno series at the designated hitter slot but will be behind the dish Wednesday. In the previous series, Ramirez was the DH, but he will likely play first base.
Hubbs also noted the team will face a “stiff challenge” in Titans starting pitcher Koby Gauna, who the team faced last year and who is pitching up to 94 mph.
Freshman right-hander Brent Wheatley, who will take the mound against the more veteran Titans team, said he doesn’t feel any added pressure going into Wednesday’s game because he trusts his teammates to get the job done.
“You can’t change your mentality,” Wheatley said. “You just have to keep doing what you’re doing out there on the mound and just pound the strike zone. That’s all I can do as a pitcher.”
Despite USC’s relative inexperience against disciplined Fullerton, Hubbs identified two areas that will be determining factors in Wednesday’s matchup and for the rest of the season.
“We have to pitch a little bit better out of the bullpen and we have to get a big hit,” Hubbs said. “If we can do those two things, we’re going to be in every game.”