The USC baseball team’s 2014 season came to a bittersweet end last Sunday, as a series-clinching victory over No. 1 Oregon State was not quite enough to push the squad into the NCAA Tournament. The Trojans (29-24, 15-14 Pac-12) entered the year’s final weekend guaranteed of their first winning record since 2005, and many speculated that a convincing series win would earn the team a postseason berth. Though USC accomplished this goal with hard-fought wins over the Beavers (42-12, 23-7) on Friday and Sunday, the NCAA did not include the Trojans among its 33 at-large selections to the tournament.
Along with the Beavers, Washington, Oregon, Arizona State, and Stanford will represent the Pac-12 in regional play. USC, who finished the 2014 campaign with an identical conference record to Stanford and defeated the Cardinal twice in a three-game series, were reportedly among the selection committee’s “first four out.” Still, the season marked a significant step forward for a program that is less than 20 years removed from its last College World Series title.
Head Coach Dan Hubbs kept Oregon State off balance in Friday’s series opener with an adjustment to his pitching rotation, choosing to start sophomore Brent Wheatley over junior Wyatt Strahan. Wheatley had been torched for five earned runs in two thirds of an inning just three days prior in a start against Cal State Fullerton, but his short outing kept him fresh for the weekend. The move proved brilliant, as the Villa Park, California native held the Beavers’ stellar offense to just two runs to over six strong innings. Even with Wheatley’s gritty, emotional performance, the Trojans would need some help to get to Oregon State starter Jace Fry. That help came in the bottom of the fourth, when sophomore right fielder AJ Ramirez reached base on an error from Beavers’ shortstop Trever Morrison. Redshirt junior left fielder Omar Cotto Lozada followed with a single, setting the stage for freshman second baseman Frankie Rios to deliver a clutch two-run triple into the right-field corner.
With both starters on the bench and the score knotted at two, the game became a battle of the bullpens from the seventh inning onward. The Trojans capitalized immediately, leading off their half of the seventh with singles from Rios and redshirt freshman shortstop Reggie Southall. Senior third baseman Kevin Swick advanced the runners with a bunt, followed by a go-ahead sacrifice fly from sophomore center fielder Timmy Robinson. Freshman catcher Jeremy Martinez added an insurance run with a two-out RBI single.
Sophomore left-hander Marc Huberman was first out of the bullpen for USC, and delivered a clean seventh inning to earn his first win of the season. Sophomore closer Kyle Davis entered the game with one out in the eighth and navigated jams in each of the final two frames for the five-out save, his ninth of the season.
If the Trojans’ impressive 4-2 victory on Friday afternoon was a statement to the NCAA selection committee, Oregon State’s overpowering performance on Saturday was a reminder that the Beavers’ are deserving of their No. 1 ranking. Strahan was excellent for USC, even as he pitched a day later than usual, allowing two runs and just three hits over seven innings of work. But Strahan and the Trojan offense were no match for Oregon State starter Ben Wetzler, who captured his 11th win of the season with a dominating complete game shutout. Wetzler, who tops the Beavers’ starting rotation with a 0.76 ERA, scattered three hits over nine innings, striking out five batters and walking just three. Only Cotto Lozada, sophomore designated hitter Blake Lacey, and Martinez recorded hits for USC.
Strahan started off the game poorly, walking three batters in the first inning alone. The Villa Park native nearly got out of the mess unscathed, but two-out RBI singles from Oregon State’s Gabe Clark and Kavin Keyes proved to be all the Beavers needed for the victory. Though Strahan and sophomore left-hander Kyle Twomey combined for eight scoreless innings, only allowing one more hit, the Trojans could not push a run across against Wetzler. USC’s best chance came in the second inning, when Rios was robbed of an RBI double after a diving catch from All-Pac-12 right fielder Dylan Davis. The Beavers flashed the leather again in the bottom of the ninth, when center fielder Jeff Hendrix spectacularly robbed Robinson of a home run.
Knowing that his team’s postseason chances were on the line, Hubbs made another change to his starting rotation on Sunday. Instead of senior Bob Wheatley, the first-year head coach chose Kyle Davis to face off against the Beavers’ All-American righty Andrew Moore. Once again, Hubbs’ maneuvering paid off. Davis capped his breakout season with a bang, recording a complete game victory in his second collegiate start. The Garden Grove, California native scattered four hits over nine innings, allowing a single unearned run and recording 14 strikeouts.
The Trojans pushed across their first run in the bottom of the first, when senior first baseman Jake Hernandez’s sacrifice fly scored Swick. After Oregon State evened the score in the third, USC retook the lead in the fifth inning on an RBI single from Southall. The team added an insurance run in the seventh when a Martinez double scored Swick.
Though the win was not enough to keep the Trojans’ season alive, the seniors who were honored before Sunday’s contest can be proud that their class left a positive mark on what was once collegiate baseball’s best program. Hernandez, who finished his final season as USC’s leading hitter, Swick, the elder Wheatley, and the team’s three other seniors suffered through three losing seasons, a coaching change, NCAA violations and now the heartbreak of a postseason snub. But those six players can take heart in the fact that under Hubbs, USC baseball might finally be on the right track.