Through six innings the score was tied.
USC and UCLA were in the midst of a 1-1 pitchers’ duel on a beautiful Sunday afternoon at Dodger Stadium. The early season rivalry game was living up to its name.
Sophomore pitcher Ben Mount, who had pitched brilliantly in relief of injured starter Kevin Couture, ran into trouble in the bottom of the seventh. He gave up a lead-off single to UCLA pinch hitter Marc Navarro and walked infielder Tyler Rahmatulla.
Senior pitcher Shuhei Fujiya relieved Mount but threw a wild pitch and gave up a seeing-eye one-out single that found its way through a drawn-in infield. Two runs scored.
Down 3-1, the Trojans failed to capitalize in the eighth inning with two runners on base, but UCLA didn’t quit in its half of the frame.
Amid an array of erratic USC pitching and UCLA line drives that landed in the outfield gaps, the Trojans’ relievers combined to give up three more runs in the bottom of the inning.
The game that was a back-and-forth nail-biter blossomed into a 6-1 Bruin blowout within a half hour.
“We made some little mistakes that ended up costing us the whole weekend,” USC coach Chad Kreuter said.
A loss to a rival is never easy to swallow, especially when it tops off a 0-3 weekend that also included defeats at the hands of baseball powerhouses Oklahoma State and Vanderbilt.
But the most unfortunate thing for the USC baseball team is that losing to UCLA is nothing new.
In fact, the Trojans have dropped 10 of their last 13 to their crosstown rival.
A win Sunday at Dodger Stadium this early in the season could have represented a Trojan turnaround and sent a message that USC baseball is ready to compete with the top teams in the Pac-10.
Kreuter, however, tried to downplay Sunday’s game, referring to it as just another game that could have added a mark in the Trojans’ win column.
“We only play UCLA four times during the season,” he said. “I’m concerned with playing the game that’s in front of us every single day. We have to win as many games as we can.”
Well, maybe Kreuter should be a little more concerned about UCLA. Not only are the Bruins a rival, but they represent one of five teams that stand as the class of the Pac-10 at the moment.
With the competitive likes of No. 2 Arizona State, No. 10 Oregon State, No. 17 UCLA, No. 18 Stanford and No. 25 Oregon all in contention for the conference title, USC will have to face and beat a lot of top-ranked opponents if it looks to break its playoff drought.
Beating UCLA would have been a nice start. It also would have caused those other teams to take notice of USC baseball.
I’m not saying that Sunday’s loss will determine the team’s fate for the rest of the year, but it could have bumped the Trojans back in the right direction after dropping two games over the weekend.
After its promising 3-1 start to the season, USC now finds itself under .500 at 3-4 and is probably questioning whether it can compete against top-flight teams.
As it is, USC is projected to finish eighth in the Pac-10.
That’s unacceptable for any Trojan team.
The talent is there. USC has a solid crop of high-potential pitchers and some strong bats that have shown surprising promise in the early going. But the game is about wins, and USC hasn’t compiled any in the past few days — and not very many in the past few seasons either.
According to Kreuter, the team’s aim is to reach about 34 victories in order to have a chance to advance to regionals.
But if USC wants to reach the playoffs, it needs to start playing with the confidence and swagger that flooded through this program for years — the same poise that has resulted in a Division I-best 11 NCAA titles.
It also needs to start beating the top teams in the Pac-10, including those guys over in Westwood.
“Soft Hands” runs on Tuesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Jon at email@example.com.