As the USC baseball team enters the final month of its baseball season 11 games under .500, it can at least feel good that it isn’t having the year Texas Christian is.
TCU actually has a better record than USC this year. But while the youthful Trojans (16-27, 8-13) were expected to struggle, the Horned Frogs certainly were not. They started the season ranked No. 14 by Baseball America, fresh off a 2012 campaign that saw them come within two games of making the College World Series. But TCU comes to Dedeaux Field tonight just 21-23 on the season and just 8-10 in the less-than-stellar Big 12 conference.
The reason for the Horned Frogs’ woes is the team’s struggles at the plate. As a team, TCU is hitting just .242 this season and has 355 hits in 44 games. The main victim of poor run support has been No. 2 starting pitcher Brandon Finnegan, who has a 2.12 ERA this year but a stunning 0-6 record.
“Their pitching numbers are just stupid,” USC head coach Dan Hubbs said. “[Finnegan] touches 95 [miles per hour] and he’s their second-best pitcher.”
On the mound in game one for TCU will be Morrison Preston and his 1.31 ERA. USC will counter with junior ace Bob Wheatley, who has a 1.84 ERA — impressive in its own right.
With the dominant pitching of TCU, runs will be at a premium all weekend. As such, added pressure will be put on USC’s pitching staff to limit the opportunities for the Horned Frogs. That might not sound too difficult against a team struggling at the plate the way TCU is, but that doesn’t mean Hubbs isn’t worried about it.
“We cannot give up free bases,” Hubbs said. “We can’t afford to give them any extra opportunity.”
Though TCU might struggle to create runs, USC has been prone to “gift” runs to its opponents, as Hubbs put it. The Trojans have given up at least 283 so-called “free bases” this year — 190 walks, 50 hit batsman and 43 errors. For comparison, USC’s opponents have given the Trojans 190 “free bases.”
In the seventh inning alone of Tuesday’s 9-5 loss to Pepperdine, USC surrendered six runs (six unearned) as a result of three walks, two errors (including a passed ball), a hit batsman and a wild pitch.
“It was disappointing,” Hubbs said of USC’s defense. “That’s a game that we should win.”
All season, the Trojans have found themselves out of games that they should be in, including a memorable six-error afternoon against Oregon.
“It’s tough to say what’s been going on,” USC junior infielder Kevin Swick said. “At a certain point, it becomes a lack of confidence, but I really don’t know what’s causing the problems. We’ve just got to be better and mentally stronger and figure it out.”
With games this weekend expected to be close, low-scoring affairs, the Trojans cannot afford unforced errors. With only a handful of upperclassman pitching regularly for USC, the youthful pitching staff has been prone to bouts of major inconsistency and control issues — especially the bullpen.
“Wheatley doesn’t walk a lot of guys,” Hubbs said. “And [Friday starter sophomore] Wyatt [Strahan] has had his issues but he’s been much better lately. So that will be good for us. The key will be the bullpen. We’re going to need to find some guys who can be consistent and reliable.”
The same has been said all season, and not just about the bullpen. There is a lot of talent on this Trojan team, but not an awful lot of experience. And it takes both to win at this level.
But a number players have made tremendous strides. Freshman outfielder Timmy Robinson, for example, has been the embodiment of this freshman class. Robinson started his year off 2-for-25 and batting .080. Before last weekend, he had a 12-game hitting streak and had raised his average to .248. The hitting streak ended at the hands of No. 5 Oregon State this past weekend, but the improvement hasn’t been lost.
“If you look at Timmy at the beginning of the season, he just couldn’t figure it out,” Swick said. “But now he’s really catching on, which is great to see. There’s been improvement all around.”
With the season more or less a lost cause for USC, the team’s focus has shifted to finishing this year on a strong note and building momentum for next year.
“Coach Hubbs always says, ‘Get better a little bit every day,’” Swick said. “If we do that, it’s going to give us some momentum for next season.”
As the 12-time national championship program closes in on its ninth non-winning season in the last 10 years, Hubbs reflected on the state of his program.
“We’ve been talking as a team about the higher level of performance we need to have,” Hubbs said. “There’s a higher level of performance we have to maintain, or rather attain, to get the program back where it needs to be.”
First pitch for tonight’s game at Dedeaux Field is scheduled for 6 p.m.