Coming into Tuesday’s road game at UC Irvine, the glass half-empty takeaway from the USC baseball team’s last few games was that the lineup was struggling. USC ranks near the bottom of the strong Pac-12 in nearly every hitting statistic, from batting average to runs to RBIs.
Strong pitching and fielding performances carried the Trojans to a series win against Utah the previous weekend, but the Trojans needed their hitters to step it up. They did so against Irvine; it just wasn’t enough, as USC lost 8-9 to drop to 11-6 on the season.
The Anteaters jumped on the Trojans early. Senior starting pitcher Mason Perryman never got control of the strike zone, hitting the first four batters he faced, gift-wrapping UC Irvine a run. Irvine catcher Jacob Castro followed up with a single to center, which turned into 3 runs on a fielding error by the Trojans’ junior center fielder Lars Nootbaar. By the time freshman reliever John Beller got USC’s third out of the frame, Irvine held a 4-0 advantage.
The Trojans would respond with a run in each of the next two innings. In the top of the second, redshirt junior designated hitter Stephen Dubb scored on a single to center from redshirt sophomore catcher Kaleb Murphy. A two-out strikeout from sophomore right fielder Matthew Acosta, however, left redshirt junior third baseman Angelo Armenta stranded on third.
In the top of the third, junior first baseman Dillon Paulson hit a solo home run down the right field line to cut the deficit to 2 runs. Another strikeout, this time swinging by Dubb, left another runner in scoring position.
The Trojans had their chances to tie the game early, but didn’t take full advantage. The Anteaters did. In the bottom of the third, Irvine second baseman Cole Kreuter singled to left field, bringing Castro in to score. Both pitching staffs tightened up, and the margin stayed at 5-2 for the next three innings.
At the top of the seventh, the Trojans rallied. Nootbaar singled, then scored on a double to left center from junior second baseman Brandon Perez. After advancing to third on a ground out, Perez scored on a double down the right field line by sophomore left fielder Blake Sabol, who would score two batters later when Armenta doubled to center. The game was tied at 5.
USC didn’t maintain momentum for long. In the bottom of the inning, Irvine first baseman Ryan Fitzpatrick bombed a 2-run homer off of junior reliever Solomon Bates, a no-doubter over the left field wall. Nootbaar, who broke out of his struggles in this game, tied it up with a 2-run shot of his own in the top of the eighth.
The Trojans had worked their way back into the game, but a bad mistake ruined it all. Two singles off of sophomore reliever Austin Manning and an error loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth, handing freshman Brian Gursky quite a mess when he came on in relief.
Gursky did well, striking out the first two batters, but the second at-bat ended with a wild pitch, scoring the go-ahead run for Irvine. Despite the fact that Gursky retired each batter he faced, one unfortunate misstep made the difference in this back-and-forth game, as USC failed to score in the ninth.
The Trojans will start a three-game series at Stanford on Friday. If the unforced mistakes continue, the third-ranked team in the country will show them just how important every play is in baseball.