Extra Innings: Defense is the key for USC baseball

Sam Arslanian | Daily Trojan

Many fans, including myself, had low expectations for the USC baseball team entering the 2018 season. Coming off a 21-34 2017 season and a relatively young roster, there wasn’t much that made the Trojans look like a dominant team on paper.

They opened the season with a loss to Utah Valley, a team I had never heard of, and I thought to myself, “Oh, boy, this could be a rough season.” To my surprise I was proven wrong almost instantly as the Trojans won their next seven games, topping the likes of Long Beach State and LMU and sweeping the three-game series over Villanova.

Suddenly there seemed to be a glimmer of hope for this Trojan team. I tried to ground myself and realize that the aforementioned teams were not particularly strong lineups.

This past weekend, the Men of Troy traveled to Fayetteville, Ark. to face off against the No. 5 Razorbacks in a three-game series. This was the Trojans’ first true test of the season. They dropped the first game by a score of 0-4 and then bounced back with a 3-1 win the next day.

The team that was projected to have a very average season upset the number five seed. I investigated to find the key to the Trojans’ recent success. One word: defense.

With a fielding percentage of .997, USC has the best fielding percentage in the NCAA. They have made just one error this season, so far an astounding accomplishment.

Looking deeper into the Trojans’ 3-1 Saturday win over the Razorbacks, the importance of defense becomes blatantly evident. USC did not have a multi-hit batter and only recorded five hits compared to Arkansas’ nine. Moreover, the Men of Troy stranded nine Razorbacks on base.

A lot of people will look at this and assume that Arkansas should have found ways to score those runs. On the other hand, I look at the outcome as a testament of the Trojans’ strong defense.

USC didn’t have a strong game at the plate as the dominant Arkansas rotation wouldn’t allow that, but the Trojans found a way to limit the Hogs’ offense and put up the few runs they needed to win the ball game.

Prior to the series, head coach Dan Hubbs commented on how defense has been a focus and strong point for the Trojans.

“The defense has been fantastic,” Hubbs said. “They make the routine play. They made balls on the run, balls in the hole, we’re not killing ourselves with stupid mistakes. And that’s what we’re going to have to do. This team is going to be built on pitching and defense and our bullpen and then getting the timely hit. I think we’ve been successful at doing that for the first couple of weeks.”

I’ve played baseball for as long as I can remember. Although, I have never played at the college level, I played federation ball with the same team for almost a decade. Through those nine years, I learned a lot about the game of baseball and my team. The most important thing I learned was to understand my team. Our team seldom had big bats. Most of our wins were by a few runs, resembling score lines of 2-1 and 1-0.

The average spectator and a lot of coaches would see this as a problem. Alternatively, we recognized who we were as a team and emphasized our defense. We knew we weren’t going to beat our opposition with our bats. We had to do it with pitching and defense. We very rarely made errors and because of that, we were able to strand a significant amount of runners and limit big innings.

In my opinion, that’s what the Trojans need to do. They need to recognize the composition and skill sets of their roster. In 2018, they have posted a team batting average of .263, but nonetheless this team is winning games. For now, they need to understand that maybe they won’t put up 5 or 6 runs in a game and that defense is key for this team. Ideally, at some point in the season their bats will come alive, and when they do the Men of Troy will be dangerous.

Sam Arslanian is a freshman majoring in journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Extra Innings,” runs Mondays.