For seven innings, the Trojans fought to find any consistent offense against Long Beach State. For seven innings Dirtbags pitcher John Castro had USC’s lineup on its toes, allowing just six hits and zero runs.
“I thought Castro pitched phenomenally well for them today,” head coach Dan Stubbs said. “He had three pitches working and he kept us off balance.”
But in a wild Tuesday night game that lasted four hours and featured 11 innings, the first seven frames merely served as prelude. The Trojans needed one major play to get back into the game, and junior Lars Nootbaar provided just that. Down 2-0 in the bottom of the eighth with two outs and a man on second, the center fielder blasted a moonshot that sailed over the right field fence. With that two-run homer, a Trojans’ offense that had been largely dormant up until that point came alive.
“Honestly it’s one of the greatest feelings,” Nootbaar said. “Just knowing you squared a ball up, it’s almost as if you didn’t even feel it. It’s one of those things where right at contact, you know it’s going out. Just seeing my teammates enjoy it was really the best part.”
While Nootbaar’s home run gave the team a chance to win, solid pitching from a very young rotation kept the Trojans afloat up until that point. Junior Mason Perryman performed admirably — if slightly erratically — in only his fourth career start. He gave up just five hits but also hit three batters, at one point nailing two in a row to load the bases. After four innings, he was replaced by sophomore Quinten Longrie, who gave up one hit in nine outs, with five strikeouts.
“We’re relying on a lot of young guys,” Stubbs said. “You think about the pitching that was out there today; I think Mason probably has 25 innings of college experience, Longrie might have 2 or 3 innings of college experience and the other guys have zero. We’re going to be a work in progress a little bit.”
With the game tied at two at the top of the ninth, Stubbs made the bold decision to send freshman Austin Manning out to the mound. The lefty looked confident at first, striking out LBSU second baseman Jarron Duran. But then he gave up a double followed by a perfectly executed RBI sacrifice fly to center field. Manning managed to get out of the inning giving up only the one run, but the Trojans once again found themselves in a do-or-die situation heading into the bottom of the ninth.
This time, however, they didn’t need Nootbaar’s hot bat. With two freshman pinch runners, John Thomas and Christian Moya, at the corners senior Cris Perez came up to bat with two outs. As Thomas attempted to steal from first base, LBSU catcher David Baneulos overthrew the second baseman, allowing Moya to score off of the error. The Trojans left the inning with a 3-3 tie, meaning that fans at Dedeaux Field would be treated to a late night of extra innings.
Both teams failed to score in the 10th inning. Manning produced a three up, three down inning on the defensive end and then senior AJ Fritts was unable to bring junior Adalberto Carrillo home from third with one out.
After Manning once again prevented the Dirtbags from scoring in the top of the 11th, the Trojans seemed destined to finally finish the game. First Brandon Perez reached first base when LBSU’s center fielder dropped a routine flyball. Then he reached second off of a wild pickoff throw to first base. The Dirtbags’ pitcher Chris Rivera intentionally walked Matthew Acosta and Tyler Urbach leaving the bases loaded with zero outs.
Despite the odds stacked in their favor, the Trojans still did not make ending the game a simple task. Cris Perez and David Edson both struck out, leaving junior shortstop Frankie Rios up to bat with two outs and the game on the line. Rios immediately got down 0-2 in the count, and for a minute it looked as though USC had squandered another golden opportunity — except it had not. Rios blasted a walk-off single to center field and was immediately mobbed by an army of exhausted teammates.
“I was excited,” Rios said. “I wasn’t doing all too well, and then I got that hit. I saw it off the bat, and I was pumped.”
On the game, Nootbaar produced a memorable performance, going 3-4 with a home run and two RBI. On the season, he is batting .688 with two homers.
A positive sign for USC going forward was the season debut of senior leader Corey Dempster following a knee injury. The outfielder came into the eighth inning as a pinch hitter and singled on the first pitch he saw.
After defeating LBSU, the Trojans travel to North Carolina on Friday for games against Wake Forest and Duke.