COLUMN: USC baseball is verging on rise back to greatness

When I was assigned the baseball beat last spring for the Daily Trojan, I couldn’t have been more excited. The program was coming off its most encouraging season in years, making the 2015 NCAA Regional Final and losing to the eventual champion, Virginia. Jeremy Martinez, one of the premier hitters in college baseball, would be back at USC for his junior season along with senior ace Kyle Davis and a host of other talented ballplayers, and USC looked set to make a serious run at the College World Series.

But the Trojans stumbled just a little out of the gates, and they never recovered. When I flew home for the summer, the team was two games under .500, finishing the season at an even 28-28 — with a school-record 12 MLB Draft picks on the roster.

I was disappointed, but it wasn’t a huge deal personally: I had enjoyed my weekends and Tuesday nights at the ballpark regardless. Having said that, I just couldn’t be optimistic about the 2017 season when I assigned baseball beat writers in January as one of the new sports editors. Surely, a green USC team would struggle this spring, if only because of the ridiculous amount of roster turnover. I grimly thought about head coach Dan Hubbs, who I enjoyed talking to throughout the 2016 campaign. I wondered if I would see him in the Dedeaux Field dugout come my senior spring semester?

But here we are near the end of March, and Hubbs and his Trojans are sitting pretty at 15-8 overall (they were 11-12 at this point last season) and in third place in the Pac-12. They have taken two of three in their first two conference series of the year, and they shut out a high-powered San Diego State offense for the second time this season on Tuesday night. Dedeaux Field has also been a fortress early on, with USC boasting an 11-5 mark at home.

How did the Trojans manage this after losing two-thirds of their regular 2016 starting lineup and close to half of their entire roster of pitchers? After Hubbs endured much criticism last year, credit must go the head coach now, as he has rallied a USC squad that was picked to finish second-to-bottom in the conference in the preseason.

The return of outfielder Corey Dempster was a massive boost as well: The senior passed up a chance to sign with the New York Yankees last summer to return to USC, and he has been a menace hitting cleanup so far this spring, mashing .325 with two home runs and 12 runs batted in. Junior infielder Adalberto Carrillo has also chipped in three home runs and 17 RBIs in his third year in Cardinal and Gold.

The star of the season so far, however, is undoubtedly sophomore Lars Nootbaar, who has shifted over to first base after playing outfield during his freshman campaign.

Nootbaar cooled off dramatically after a hot start last year, but he has showed no signs of slowing down in 2017, leading the team with a .338 batting average, four dingers and 21 RBIs. He went 3-for-4 on Tuesday and also drove in two crucial runs with a double in the series finale against Arizona State last weekend.

But USC’s team batting average has actually fallen considerably compared to 2016, from .294 down to .268. Though they have come up with clutch hits when needed, the Trojans’ hitting has been more timely than consistently deadly so far this year.

The squad’s biggest boost this year has come from its pitching. USC endured many disappointing performances on the mound in 2016, finishing the season with a team earned run average of 4.51, which ranked 131st in the nation. The staff has shaved nearly a half-run off that figure this spring. Six Trojan pitchers own ERAs under three, and this wealth of reliable arms may very well be the team’s X factor so far, as USC has taken 11 of its 15 victories this year by fewer than five runs.

And the most exciting part about this team is its age. Dempster and infielder David Edson are due to graduate at the end of the season, but most key players should return next spring, assuming last year’s record number of draftees was an anomaly and not the start of a trend. If the Trojans can play to this level with a relatively inexperienced roster, what can they do with a seasoned group of veterans?

Of course, USC’s youth also puts it at a disadvantage this year. It’s early: The college baseball season has more than 50 games, and who knows if Hubbs’ many freshman bats and arms will be able to power through the stretch run.

Nevertheless, it has been exciting to watch freshman outfielders Brady Shockey and Matthew Acosta deliver clutch hits, and redshirt sophomore Bryce Dyrda and freshman Austin Manning are developing into shutdown closing options in the bullpen. Freshman Chris Clarke even pitched his way out of the bullpen and into the starting rotation after earning the win with 5.2 innings of shutout relief against UCLA at the Dodger Stadium Classic.

With a collegiate baseball program as historic as USC’s, it’s always great to have a nationally relevant team on campus — the Trojans are the alma mater of Tom Seaver, Mark McGwire and and Randy Johnson, after all. It seemed like the Trojans were back on the road to a championship before last season’s stumble. Perhaps this year’s underdog side is about to get things on track again, no matter what the experts may predict.

Ollie Jung is a junior studying print and digital journalism. He is also a sports editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, “Jung Money,” runs on Thursdays.