After capturing its first two Pac-12 series of the season against Washington State and Arizona State, USC heads to Tucson this weekend for a three-game showdown with No. 13 Arizona.
“To win two in a row separates your record a bit,” head coach Dan Hubbs said. “Now we’ve got to go to Arizona and find a way to hopefully continue the streak and win another one.”
Like USC, Arizona is also off to a hot start to the season. The team now stands at 17-7 after beginning this year’s campaign with a 10-game winning streak. Hitting has been the Wildcats’ greatest strength so far, as they possess a conference high .332 team batting average. The Wildcats also lead the Pac-12 in runs, RBIs, hits, slugging percentage and walks.
The key to the Wildcats’ early statistical prowess has been an experienced and deep batting order. Six players are currently batting over .320, with sophomore Alfonso Rivas III leading the way with an eye-popping .395 average. The Wildcats may have lost five starters from last year’s team, but the College World Series runner-ups remain a top national contender.
While they may lack the same offensive efficiency, USC has also been hitting well to start the season. Sophomore Lars Nootbaar has been the team’s clutch performer so far, with a team-leading four home runs and 21 RBIs. Fellow sophomore Brandon Perez has been a pleasant surprise this year; after seeing limited at-bats last season, he is hitting .338. Senior Corey Dempster is currently on a 11-game hitting streak after solidifying the Trojans’ victory against San Diego State on Wednesday with an eighth inning RBI single.
“I’m just attacking the fastball and being aggressive,” Dempster said. “I think the biggest thing is not being afraid to let ball speed go early in the count or being afraid to get behind either.”
As opposed to hitting, pitching has been more of an adventure for the Trojans. The young bullpen has had its bright spots — freshman closer Austin Manning has three saves and fellow freshman Chris Clarke has provided key innings when called upon. However, inconsistency has been an issue for regular starters such as sophomore Marrick Crouse and junior Brad Wegman. Overall, USC is eighth in Pac-12 team ERA, which could be problematic against Arizona’s stacked batting order.
One storyline to watch this weekend will be who Hubbs decides to start behind the plate at the catcher position. Senior transfer Cris Perez and freshmen Kaleb Murphy and Blake Sabol have all seen significant time behind the plate so far this season. As the Trojans head deeper into the heart of conference play, it will be interesting to see if the position becomes more solidified.
After wrapping up the series against Arizona, USC has a quick detour against Long Beach State on Tuesday before returning to Dedeaux Field for a three-game series with Stanford starting on Thursday.
“It’s a grind week in and week out, day in day out,” Hubbs said. “The guys just have to be prepared for it.”