If ever the Trojans needed home-field advantage, now is the time.
USC baseball has dropped six of its last seven games (with its most recent against Pepperdine Tuesday) and has dipped to two games below .500 at 7-9.
Tuesday’s game against the Waves was supposed to offer a battle-worn Trojan team a brief respite from a tough schedule that pitted them against four ranked teams in their last five games.
While the Trojans fared well in a 2-1 win over the then-ranked No.10 Oklahoma Sooners and their top pitching prospect, ultimately this last stretch has been a woeful tale of bullpen inconsistencies and hitters being too tense in the batter’s box with runners on base.
And the team is not about to catch any breaks in the near future. This weekend, they play at home against No. 12 Oregon to kick off conference play.
USC head coach Dan Hubbs said the problem is all in his players’ heads.
“It’s about where they are mentally, more than physically,” he said. “When you start to see them doubt themselves and struggle with that, it makes it more difficult.”
As of late, it’s the pitching staff that has taken a shock to its confidence. In the team’s last six losses, the Trojans’ bullpen has surrendered 27 runs, putting even more pressure on a lineup that’s pressing at the plate and struggling to score.
But junior starting pitcher Bobby Wheatley said that despite their recent slump, he’ll never lose faith in his teammates and that he understands the difficulties that this bullpen, comprised primarily of freshmen, is going through.
“This could be the first time that they’ve ever really failed,” Wheatley said. “Coming from high school, they’re used to being successful. I’ve been there before, getting your first taste of failure.”
Hubbs acknowledges that his young players are still acclimating to a cruel learning curve, but said that players need to remember that not everybody takes collegiate baseball by storm as a freshman. He insisted that this is an opportunity for them to mature as players and learn from losing.
“That’s part of growing up as a baseball player,” Hubbs said. “You have to have this attitude where you forget your failures and just remember your successes.”
Even if the root of the problem is internal, the result manifests itself in pitchers losing their command of the ball, missing the zone and giving up free bases.
“It’s all about strike one,” sophomore catcher Garrett Stubbs said. “If they get ahead in the count then they have control of the batter. Right now, we’re getting behind in the count.”
Giving up walks has been the pitchers’ pitfall, but being unable to take them is an equally important problem for hitters. Hubbs said that at a time when the team is trying to do too much with a bat to compensate for missed opportunities, getting bases on balls can help players turn their slump around.
“They look at a walk sometimes as a weakness instead of a free base but it doesn’t go against your average,” Hubbs said. “Instead, they force their swing and they get themselves out.”
The Trojans need to worry less about the long ball and focus more on small ball and scrappy play: being patient at the plate, fouling off pitches and not caving in to balls they can’t hit. Aside from being a blow to a box score, Hubbs worries that the “go big or go home” mentality might affect the way his players approach the game.
“Sometimes I worry they take it too seriously,” Hubbs said. “I want them to be passionate about winning but at the end of the day, they have to understand it’s a game and be able to play with relaxed freedom, the way they’ve been doing it since they were five.”
Wheatley takes the mound for the Trojans on Friday, and he said that he is looking forward to using conference play as a way of helping the team reshape its focus and live up to its potential.
“We can play with any team if we show up,” Wheatley said. “The next step for us is showing up every day and having our play on the field be consistent.”
This next stretch will test whether the freshmen can pick themselves up and dust themselves off or if the growing pains are going to hurt a little bit longer.