The clock threatened to strike midnight, but USC’s baseball team didn’t want the ball to end. Playing at picturesque Jackie Robinson Memorial Field against crosstown rival UCLA, down four runs in the top of the ninth inning, the prospects were grim, and USC’s potential nine-game winning streak was on the line.
Then the Trojans woke up. With a string of three stealthy singles, the team found itself in an opportune situation and cultivated a comeback by forcing the hand of an overwhelmed Bruin bullpen. Redshirt freshman infielder Reggie Southall, a rising contributor for USC, elicited a bases-loaded walk to plate the first run and tug at the looming deficit.
“It just kind of steamrolled because then they relaxed after they scored a run and then all the kids started feeling it,” said USC head coach Dan Hubbs. “Then you have the bases loaded with nobody out, and that’s when you start thinking, ‘We could win this one.’”
Southall passed his patience at the plate onto his teammates, who flattened their rivals in a thrilling everybody-hits half-inning. Eight Trojan batters faced three different pitchers, lighting them up for them up for seven runs off seven hits and two walks. Blake Lacey, who started the rally with a single, drove home the final two runs of the game for a 7-4 victory.
Hubbs often speaks in clichés. One of his most frequent is that his team, and any team for that matter, can beat any other team at any time in any place. Though it might sound trite, the Trojans have found ways to support his claims, to do the improbable and achieve the highly unlikely.
The come-from-behind win was monumental, the cherry on top of a sweep for the “cardiac kids,” as Hubbs affectionately calls his team.
With Saturday’s victory, the Trojans have accomplished a number of other feats: the first series win against UCLA since 2008, the first sweep of UCLA since 2005, the first three-straight Pac-12 series wins since 2011, more conference wins than last season and their longest winning streak of this season.
USC is sitting on the precipice of much, much more with a 24-17 overall record, and an 11-9 Pac-12 record, which puts them at fifth place in the conference.
Though Hubbs admits that the team “put [itself] probably in the conversation of a post-season berth,” he noted that it’s important that they not get ahead of themselves with so many games left to play.
“We’re a good team. We’re a team that’s fighting to try to make it to regional, so we want to beat the streak, but we’re looking for a win,” Hubbs said. “We think of it as we won one game nine times in a row. We need to focus on winning one more game, rather than thinking about how we’re going to win that tenth in a row.”
The streak owes much of its survival to a pitching staff that has been able to keep an often-scrappy Trojan offense alive with consistent outings. Friday sent some of its best to the mound in sophomores Brent Wheatley, Kyle Twomey and Kyle Davis.
Twomey, who has been delegated to the bullpen, has exceeded expectations in his new role, and recording three strikeouts through 1.2 shut-out innings in the 3-2 victory.
“I think bullpen-wise, once we put in Kyle Twomey, we’ve played better,” Hubbs said. “He’s really stabilized and given us a lot of consistency to be able to use other guys in other games.”
In fact, in the past couple of weeks, Hubbs has had the luxury of having multiple options for any given position. Unlike last year, when the coach would try different lineups to see what he could make stick, Hubbs has seen many different combinations pan out for the better this season.
“I think it’s been huge for their success because when guys start to struggle, we can just plug another guy in and he really picks up the slack,” Hubbs said. “They’ve been working hard with that and everybody knows they’re going to have a chance to be in the lineup at some point to contribute.”
Thursday night’s 10-0 blowout was one of those occasions. Junior pitcher Wyatt Strahan continues to be nearly infallible, hurling eight silent frames for a 20-inning scoreless streak. His dominance was matched by an electric Trojan offense, which notched 10 runs off 13 hits.
“We’re continuing to get that kind of pitching out of our starters and we feel real confident when we go to the pen and if that continues, then we’ll be in good shape,” Hubbs said.
USC looks to win its tenth straight game on Tuesday, when it takes on UC Irvine at Dedeaux Field at 6 p.m.
Hubbs concluded with something else he’s been saying all season, and at this bright spot in USC’s season, it happens to ring true: “We just need to continue to try to play well, and if we do, I’ve been saying this all year, we’ll be in a position to win.”