In the aftermath of dropping two straight Pac-12 series to No. 7 Arizona and No. 17 Stanford — and losing six of its last seven games overall — the USC baseball team is in need of a turnaround. But the road does not get any easier this week for the Trojans (16-14), as the team collides with No. 10 Cal State Fullerton for a three-game set that kicks off on Thursday.
The series opener will be played at Dedeaux Field, but the next two clashes on Friday and Saturday will take place at Fullerton’s Goodwin Field. USC has excelled at home, boasting a 12-7 mark on the season, but has struggled on the road (3-7) with no road wins in the team’s previous five tries.
The Trojans’ away woes have stemmed largely from an inexperienced and inconsistent pitching staff. After giving up key late-inning runs to Stanford in the two losses last weekend, the group now collectively owns a 4.50 ERA — third-worst in the Pac-12.
Despite the pitching struggles, however, there have been a few bright spots, such as freshman Chris Clarke’s seven-inning performance in USC’s 7-5 victory over the Cardinal on Thursday.
“I think [the length] was huge because out in Arizona, everyone went five, and Mason [Perryman] went an inning and a third against Long Beach,” head coach Dan Hubbs said. “When you’re going four or five innings out of the pen on a Friday, it makes it a lot more difficult.”
Clarke was happy to help the team but said he didn’t feel pressured to deliver when he toed the rubber for the series opener.
“I just told myself to go out on the mound and have fun,” said Clarke, who now owns a 3-1 record on the season.
Hubbs will need an abundance of quality innings against Cal State Fullerton. The 21-10 Titans carry a team batting average of .270 with four consistent starters hitting over .300. After losing five in a row to difficult opponents such as Long Beach State, UCLA and UC Riverside, Cal State Fullerton has righted the ship and is now riding a six-game winning streak. The Titans are first in their conference with a 5-1 record so far in Big West competition.
It remains to be seen if the Trojans can match their opponent’s lethal bats. While USC’s hitting looked dormant against national powerhouse Arizona, the bats seemed to slowly come back to life against Stanford. On Thursday’s wild slugfest, senior Cris Perez and sophomore Lars Nootbaar each hit home runs as the team scored seven runs.
For Nootbaar, his insurance blast in the eighth inning was his team-leading fifth homer of the year, which extended the Trojans’ lead to two runs.
USC followed up that performance with 12 hits on Friday and an 11-hit game on Saturday. However, the team was unable to capitalize on its scoring opportunities, continuing similar struggles with runners in scoring position that plagued the Trojans against Arizona.
First pitch in Thursday’s series opener is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Dedeaux Field before the teams meet again at Goodwin Field for the final two games, which are set to begin at 7 p.m. on Friday and 1 p.m. on Saturday.
After finishing up their three-game series against the defending Big West champions, the Trojans will look forward to a brief two-game home-and-home series with UC Irvine beginning next Monday. USC does not return to Pac-12 play until next Friday, when they travel to Berkeley to take on Cal.