USC baseball starts season on a high note

It was an unorthodox opening four games for USC baseball, but all things considered, the Trojans probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

Hot hitter · USC junior infielder Dante Flores has gotten off to a torrid start in 2014, collecting 6 hits and 2 RBIs over the season’s first four games. Flores hit at a .256 clip with four doubles in 24 starts last season. - Nick Entin | Daily Trojan

Hot hitter · USC junior infielder Dante Flores has gotten off to a torrid start in 2014, collecting 6 hits and 2 RBIs over the season’s first four games. Flores hit at a .256 clip with four doubles in 24 starts last season. – Nick Entin | Daily Trojan

The team soundly upset No. 2 Cal State Fullerton last night, putting a cap on a dramatic set of four straight wins to begin 2014.

Getting things started for USC was sophomore center fielder Timmy Robinson, who singled in the bottom of the first and later scored on a wild pitch. The Titans answered in the top of the third, when outfielder Tyler Stieb pushed across what would be Fullerton’s only run with an RBI groundout. The Trojans struck again in the bottom half of the third, jumping out to a 4-1 advantage. Junior catcher Garrett Stubbs delivered the inning’s key hit, a well-placed two run single. USC added another run in the next frame, but it was not until the fifth inning that the Trojans delivered the dagger. This time it was in the form of a towering solo home run from sophomore right fielder Vahn Bozoian.

From that point on the USC bullpen stifled any chance of a Fullerton comeback, recording six innings of shutout baseball in relief of sophomore starter Brent Wheatley. Wheatley allowed one earned run in three innings of work before being relieved by lefty Sean Adler in the fourth. Adler would go on to earn the win for USC, allowing no runs in four innings. Senior James Guillen came on in the eighth for the two-inning save to put the Titans away. The Trojans’ bullpen has only allowed two runs over 21 and 1/3 innings this season.

Bozoian was ecstatic following the upset win. “We’re on cloud nine,” Bozoian said. “It was exciting to see everything we’ve worked for come together so smoothly.”

Wheatley, who also pitched in relief  during the Trojans’ win over Northwestern on Friday, said the team was motivated by previous losses to Fullerton. “Basically, last year they beat us pretty bad, so that was in the back of our minds the whole time we were preparing,” Wheatley said. “We knew we had to come out with a lot of intensity and get the win, and we did. Tonight was the best I’ve seen our offense in a while.”

If the Trojans’ upset of the perennially-contending Titans was surprising, last weekend’s opening series against Northwestern should have served as a clue to expect the unexpected. In the course of the series Guillen collected two wins on just 1 and 1/3 innings of work. Seven true freshmen made their debuts. The Trojans played nearly the equivalent of four games, tacking on 8 extra innings, with two and six additional frames on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

They started the season with two-walk off victories and walked off the field Sunday with a sweep of the Wildcats.

“As long as we win, I’m not tired. I’ll have plenty of time to be tired tonight,” USC head coach Dan Hubbs said. “I’ll play as long as we have to as long as we come away with the win, but I’ll take a nine inning win over a 15 inning win any time.”

Southpaw Kyle Twomey started Sunday for the Trojans and though he wriggled out of early jams, it was evident that the sophomore didn’t have great command of his pitches. He would depart after surrendering three runs in the fourth inning, ending his outing with four earned runs off nine hits.

After a slow offensive day on Saturday, the Trojans, with no apparent lack of energy due to Saturday’s marathon, quickly scored runs in back-to-back-to-back innings. The loudest of those runs came from sophomore right fielder Vahn Bozoian, who pummeled a long drive to left field and elicited elated cheers from the crowd with the first Trojan home run of the season.

Then, the big inning that USC never quite managed last season arrived. The team batted around, driving in seven runs on seven hits.

“When you get on a roll, everybody wants to be a part of it,” Hubbs said. “We did a good job of staying lower, harder with our contact instead of getting the ball high in the air.”

Hubbs also attributed some of his players’ success to the long inning games. USC was able to see more of the Northwestern staff, which was not as sharp Sunday due to the extra work.

Sunday’s contest was a relatively easy victory compared to Friday and Saturday’s games, in which the Trojans eked out victories in a pair of hard-fought battles.

In a grueling 15-inning duel that tested the endurance of both teams, the Trojans finally triumphed in a 2-1 victory Saturday afternoon.

The Wildcats plated the first run of the game in the bottom of the fourth, but the Trojans quickly responded in their half of the inning as Bozoian supplied an RBI groundout to bring home Flores from third.

Despite offensive struggles, USC boasted four impressive pitching performances. Senior starter Bob Wheatley allowed only one run in six innings of work and was supported by freshman Jeff Paschke, who in his collegiate debut pitched three innings of one-hit ball. Junior Nigel Nootbaar carried the bullpen with a dominant five innings in which he struck out eight Wildcats. Guillen rounded out the afternoon with a one-inning save.

USC’s winning run was manufactured in an unglamorous but effective manner — a sacrifice fly from freshman Joe Corrigan in his collegiate debut.

“I thought the pitchers did fantastic this weekend for the most part,” Hubbs said. “I thought our defense was spectacular all weekend with the exception of one inning and then we got some clutch hits. And we got a lot of contribution form a lot of different people.”

On Friday, junior Wyatt Strahan, hurling in the range of 90 to 96 miles per hour, pitched a solid six innings, allowing two earned runs and fanning five for a no-decision. USC, however, would top the Wildcats in a 4-3 victory in 11 innings.

The game was decided in a bases-loaded situation in the eleventh with the winning run coming off the bat of Robinson. Robinson reached first on wild fielder’s choice, while the Northwestern third baseman attempted to pin the third base runner in his at home. The ball whizzed past the catcher, allowing the Trojans to secure a walk-off victory.

“I think the guys were really excited to get things going,” said freshman designated hitter Jeremy Martinez, who had a hit in each game his debut weekend and picked up a pair of RBIs. “Coming into fall, this is all we talked about: playing good baseball and bringing back the legacy that USC is known for.”

Whether it was the promise of a new season of opportunity, baseball fever or the allure of the recent addition of brews at concession stands, the Trojans’ opening weekend amassed an impressive crowd. A small sea of cardinal and gold filled the stands; fans cheered and scrambled over the plentiful foul balls that landed among the seats.

USC will stay at Dedeaux Field this weekend for a three-game series with North Dakota State.