Throughout his truly remarkable and incomparable coaching career, legendary USC baseball coach Rod Dedeaux amassed more than 1,300 wins and brought home 11 national championships, figures that led to him being named the Coach of the 20th Century by Baseball America in 1999.
Dedeaux coached dozens of future Major Leaguers, and the Trojans’ baseball program, despite its recent struggles, remains by far the most accomplished program in NCAA history, which makes it all the more puzzling that it took the USC Athletic Department so long to build a statue of Dedeaux in front of the aptly-named Dedeaux Field.
Call it a coincidence or call it good karma, but since the statue’s first appearance, something special has been going on for the boys in cardinal and gold.
On Sunday, redshirt junior outfielder Omar Cotto Lozada hit a three-run home run in the 12th inning that capped a miraculous 10-day run in which the Trojans have started the season 7-0. The team’s unbeaten streak has seen four walk-off wins, three extra-inning games and a victory over national powerhouse Cal State Fullerton, which was ranked No. 2 before USC’s 6-1 win on Feb. 18.
What’s been more impressive than the team’s penchant for late-game heroics is the way in which USC’s pitching has kept it in games. Last season’s bullpen situation became so dire that head coach Dan Hubbs’ decision-making process on which arm to turn to boiled down to little more than flipping a coin. In the early goings of 2014, however, USC has a team ERA of 1.95, compared to last season’s unimpressive mark of 4.81.
Furthermore opposing batters are hitting just .224 and posting a .314 on-base percentage with a .270 slugging percentage against Trojan pitching this season. Last year, opponents hit .294/.388/.392 against USC’s pitchers. The Trojans have yet to give up a home run this year.
The calendar has yet to hit March, but it’s hard not to get even a little bit excited after the program’s first 7-0 start to a season since … well, 2012. Yes, the Trojans’ hot start then faded into obscurity, with the team posting a 23-32 overall record and a 8-22 Pac-12 record, but that doesn’t mean that there is no reason to get excited about this current group.
The majority of last season’s core returns this year, led by starting pitchers junior Wyatt Strahan, senior Bob Wheatley and sophomore Kyle Twomey, who have combined to throw 35.2 innings in six starts this year with an ERA of 2.85. USC’s four most oft-used relief pitchers — sophomore Sean Adler, junior Nigel Nootbaar, freshman Jeff Paschke and senior James Guillen — have allowed just one earned run in 21 innings pitched with a WHIP of 0.81 and an opponents’ batting average of .130.
On the offensive side, USC currently has five starters hitting .324 or better, including freshman catcher Jeremy Martinez, who is tied for the team lead with 11 hits. But of the four returning players currently hitting above .300, none of them hit better than .250 last year, which, combined with the abnormally high amount of close victories, begs the question — is any of this success sustainable?
My answer to that would be probably not, but at this point, who cares? This once-proud program has had little to cheer for during the 21st Century, and a large portion of the undergraduate enrollment can count the number of baseball games they’ve been to on one hand.
If there was ever a season to become a USC baseball fan, this just might be the one. Dedeaux Field is a great place to take in a game, and the university revamped its concessions this season and started selling alcohol during games. The home schedule features plenty of quality opponents, including nationally ranked foes Cal Poly, UCLA and Oregon State. These games should provide the Trojans with a chance to prove whether or not their early success is legitimate.
Maybe this 7-0 start is all just one long hot streak. USC plays away from Dedeaux Field tonight for the first time all season against Long Beach State, then returns home to face Cal Poly. That stretch could knock the Trojans back to reality.
But maybe this 7-0 start is something more, like a young team finally figuring it out after taking its lumps a season ago. Maybe 2014 will end up being the year marking USC’s triumphant return. Perhaps Dedeaux’s statue came at the right time — when the program was finally ready to reclaim some of its past glory.
Nick Selbe is a senior majoring in communication. His column, “Inside the 20s,” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this story, visit dailytrojan.com or email Nick at email@example.com.