Trojans start season off strong

Don’t be fooled — it was a great weekend at Dedeaux Field.

Baseball was finally back, and despite off-and-on showers, all six scheduled games of the USC baseball tournament were officially completed.

Though everything didn’t go as planned, the Trojans (2-1) managed to make the championship game, but fell short to North Carolina 11-7.

“They’re a top-20 program almost every year,” said junior third baseman Ricky Oropesa. “But we showed that we can hang with them.”

The Tar Heels (4-0) got on the board first with a pair of runs in the second. A perfectly executed hit-and-run put runners at the corners with one down, and right fielder Seth Baldwin delivered a bases-clearing triple off the wall in right-center field.

The Trojans left the bases loaded in the third, but again mounted a rally in the fourth. A single by junior center fielder Alex Sherrod, and a double over the head of Tar Heels center fielder Chaz Frank by senior second baseman Joe De Pinto put runners at second and third with no outs.

But junior designated hitter Brandon Garcia struck out and junior right fielder Mike Greco flied to center, meaning it was all up to freshman catcher Jake Hernandez, making his Trojan debut.

“It’s exciting,” Hernandez said. “It’s hard to keep your composure, but I felt good.”

And did he feel good — Hernandez promptly stepped up with a two-run double, and senior left fielder Matt Hart followed with a single through the left side, plating Hernandez and giving the Trojans a 3-2 lead.

But North Carolina came back with four runs in the second. A hit batsman, a pair of doubles and a single led to two runs and chased senior starting pitcher Logan Odam from the game.

With zero outs and runners at the corners, Cruz handed the ball to freshman lefty Kyle Richter for his Trojan debut.

“He has our uniform on,” Cruz said of Richter. “Everybody in our dugout that has our uniform on I’m gonna trust.”

Richter allowed the two runners to score, but settled down and got out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam with a strikeout and a flyout.

The Tar Heels tacked on another in the top of the sixth to make it 7-3, but in the bottom of the inning the Trojans came roaring back.

Singles by De Pinto, Garcia and Hernandez loaded the bases with one out. With two outs, freshman shortstop James Roberts was hit by a pitch to plate one, and up stepped the preseason all-American Oropesa.

“I’m not trying to hit a [home run] every at-bat,” Oropesa said. “I’m just trying to help the team out, get a double here and get some RBIs.”

With the bases juiced and the count full, Oropesa lined a bases clearing double down the right field line to tie the game at seven.

Carolina would push one run across in the seventh, but the number could have easily been more. With Tar Heels on second and third with two out, coach Cruz elected to walk switch-hitting shortstop Levi Michael to load the bases, and junior pitcher Chad Smith got Tar Heels catcher Jacob Stallings to ground to third to end the threat.

USC’s best chance to tie came in the eight, when they put runners at the corners with one out for Oropesa, who battled before finally striking out on a 3-2 curveball.

Junior first basemen Matt Foat momentarily electrified the crowd at Dedeaux Field by lofting a long ball that had all the looks of a go-ahead, three-run homer, but was ultimately caught on the warning track in right.

Carolina busted it open in the top of the ninth when second baseman Tommy Cole hit a two-run triple down the right field line and then proceeded to score on a wild pitch to give the Tar Heels their final 11-7 lead.

The Trojans went quietly in the bottom half of the inning to take their first loss of the season.

“The top of the ninth was a little deflating,” Cruz said. “But we’re not gonna let any situation get us down. We’re gonna keep competing and play the next pitch. And we did that all weekend.”

The Trojans certainly started the season on the right track by sweeping an opening day doubleheader against Missouri and Cal Poly Pomona.

Facing Missouri bright and early at 10 a.m., the Trojans struck first in the second, when De Pinto led off with a single to left. Sherrod then slapped a grounder that bounced off the glove of Tigers first baseman Dane Opel and over the fence for a ground rule double.  Greco knocked home the Trojans first run of the season with an RBI single to left. After sophomore right fielder Alex Glenn was hit by a pitch, junior leftfielder Garret Houts knocked in a pair with a single to right to give the Trojans a 3-0 lead.

USC added some padding with a pair of two-out runs in the fourth. Roberts walked and Houts reached on an infield single.  Then junior catcher Kevin Roundtree flied to center, but Mizzou center fielder Brannon Champagne dropped it, allowing two runs to score.

The Tigers got on the board with three RBI doubles in the fifth, knocking junior Trojan starter Andrew Triggs from the game after 4 2/3 innings pitched.  Senior pitcher Chirs Mezger came in and delivered one-and-one-third scoreless innings to earn the first win of the season for the Trojans.

USC added three more in the eighth and the bullpen combined for 4 1/3 scoreless innings to preserve the Trojans first victory of the season.

The late game against Cal Poly was far more interesting. As was joked in the press box after the game, you could credit Johnson with the loss, Wood with the win and rain with the save.

When the game was officially over, the scoreboard read 8-5 in favor of the Cal Poly Mustangs.  Officially, it will go in the books as a 5-2 USC win.

In the second game of a Saturday doubleheader, the Trojans lead 5-2 after five innings when the game was stopped for rain for the first time.  After 45 minutes the game resumed in the top of the sixth, and the Mustangs jumped all over the USC bullpen for six runs.  Before the Trojans could even get out of the inning, the rain started up again, and the tarp was brought back on.  When the game was stopped, Cal Poly led 8-5 with two out in the top of the sixth.  However, if the game could not be resumed, by rule the final score would revert back to the last completed inning — that was the fifth inning, after which the Trojans led 5-2.

They tried to play, however. The tarp was brought off, new dirt was poured, but the field was simply too wet to safely continue playing.  After much discussion between the two coaches and the umpires, the decision was made.  The game was called off, and the Trojans walked away with a rather unconventional 5-2 win to start off their season 2-0.

“They made the right decision,” Cruz said. “You don’t want somebody to get hurt out there.”

Of course, Cruz had a rather vested interest in the game being called, but said he wasn’t pushy about it.

“I tried to stay away from the umpires and just let them make their decision,” Cruz said. “I didn’t want to seem imposing, but remember we still had four at-bats left. That game was far from over.”

Junior transfer pitcher Austin Wood — a former fourth round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Rays — pitched all five innings that counted, giving up two earned and walking just one alongside eight strikeouts to earn his first win as a Trojan.

“It felt great,” Wood said. “My first time pitching out here, I was pretty excited the first few innings, but I settled down.”

Equipped with a mid-90’s heater, an 80 mph changeup and a sharp curve, the Mustangs were simply no match.

“Woody was great,” Sherrod said.  “He would blow it by people and then drop the velocity 15-20 miles per hour on them with the change.  And that’s not even mentioning the curve.  It was great to watch.”

USC struck for four in the first, all with two outs.  Sherrod got the rally started with a single to left, scoring Glenn from third and moving Foat up to second. De Pinto followed with another single scoring Foat, and Roundtree loaded the bases with an infield single. Garcia then came through with the bases loaded knock, plating Sherrod and De Pinto.

Cal Poly got back two in the third with a pair of two out RBI singles by J.J. Thompson and Bobby Crocker.  With runners at the corners the Mustangs were threatening a big inning, but Wood induced Mike Miller into a groundout.  After that, Wood settled into a real grove. He allowed just one base runner over the final three innings and struck out the side in the fifth.

By contrast, the Trojans threatened every inning, but could only manage to push one more across. With one out in the bottom of the third, Oropesa slammed a ball off the base of the wall in right-center.  He advanced to third on a Foat single and scored on Sherrod’s sacrifice fly to center.

However, runners stranded were a problem for the Trojans throughout the weekend.  They left 10 on against Carolina, and two on in each of the first four innings against Cal Poly, as well as one in the fifth.  Against Missouri, they left at least one on in seven of their eight innings, including the bases loaded in the seventh.

“It’s a bittersweet stat,” Cruz said. “Because it means you’re getting runners on.  But obviously the goal is to get them in as well. We just gotta trust the guy behind you, because you can’t get them all in at once.”

With the Trojans off to a good start, Oropesa believes the team did well, but there is still room for growth.

“Overall, a successful weekend, he said. “We competed and we just gotta keep working hard.”

The Trojans travel inland to take on UC Riverside on Tuesday, and will spend next weekend in Houston visiting No. 15 Rice.