USC ready to face MLB prospect Appel

Low and hard.

That’s this year’s offensive philosophy for the USC baseball team, which has experienced varying degrees of success and execution over the first 28 games of the Trojans’          (11-17) season.

“We don’t have a lot of power, especially at our field,” senior outfielder Greg Zebrack said. “You hit a fly ball here it’s an out, so we stress hitting the ball low and hard. If you do that, the fielder has to gather the ball, then he’s gotta throw the ball to first and the first baseman has to catch the ball too. There’s a lot of things that can go wrong, as opposed to hitting a fly ball [when] the guy just has to catch it. You learn that in Little League.”

The Trojans have proven the ability to do that just fine this year, such as when they smacked 37 hits in a three-game series against Cal last weekend. They’ve also shown a knack for failing spectacularly at that concept, hitting 11 fly ball outs and striking out seven times in an offensively dismal 3-1 loss to UC Irvine on Tuesday.

USC has hit right with its opponents this year but hasn’t put runs across the plate at even close to the same rate. Part of that comes from a lack of execution of the “little things,” as USC head coach Dan Hubbs refers to small-ball plays such as bunting a runner over and making productive outs.

“We have to make the defense make plays,” Hubbs said. “We can’t just keep giving them outs at the plate.”

That becomes all the more imperative this weekend as the Trojans take on the Stanford Cardinal. The Farm has been a hotbed of professional prospects in recent years, but perhaps none as tantalizing as ace Mark Appel, who will start for the Cardinal (14-9) tonight. Appel was projected as the first overall draft pick as a junior last year but wasn’t picked until eighth overall and chose to return to school for his senior season.

And it’s been a spectacular season so far for Appel. The ace is 4-2 with a 0.96 ERA in six starts, including three complete games. He has 64 strikeouts and just eight walks in 47 innings of work, causing Hubbs to liken his performance to Mark Prior’s epic 2001 season at USC when he went 15-1 with a 1.69 ERA and 202 strikeouts to 18 walks in 138 2/3 innings.

“The way you get to those guys is to force action,” Hubbs said on how his sometimes meek-hitting team can beat Appel. “Put the ball in play, make them have to make plays and not just give them free outs. So you may see us force some action and play a little more aggressively, and see if we can get them to make some mistakes.”

As great as Appel has been this year, the Trojans are in good hands on the mound in their own right on Friday with Bob Wheatley. The junior starter has a 1.58 ERA in 45 2/3 innings this year, and Hubbs is confident his ace can match Stanford’s.

“We know it’s gonna be a close game,” Hubbs said. “With the way Wheatley’s been pitching and with Appel, obviously, runs are really gonna be at a premium.”

First pitch Friday at Dedeaux Field is at 6 p.m., with Saturday’s matinee at 2 p.m. and Sunday’s series finale at 1 p.m.