Trojans travel to Malibu after series win

For only the third time this season and for the first time since spring break, USC baseball will face a sub-.500 foe, as it takes  on Pepperdine at 3 p.m. today in Malibu, Calif.

It’s a welcome change for a team that has faced ranked teams in nine of its last 11 games, going 5-6 in that span.

The Trojans (13-19, 4-5) are fresh off their first Pac-10 series win of the season last weekend, when they took two of three from No. 11 Stanford.

“I’m hoping we can carry some of this momentum to Tuesday,” said USC interim coach Frank Cruz, whose team recently won its first Pac-10 series of the year following two victories against the Cardinal.

The Waves (15-16), however, are no pushover. They recently knocked off a UC Santa Barbara team that has beaten the Trojans twice this year, and they have split their last six games against USC.

Cruz knows the Waves well, having faced them three times a year as coach of West Coast Conference rival Loyola Marymount for 12 seasons.

“Pepperdine usually plays pretty well,” Cruz said. “Every team we play is tough.”

The Waves are led by fifth-year senior catcher Trent Diedrich and junior outfielder Brian Humphries. Each is hitting above .300 and slugging .423.

On the mound, Pepperdine is expected to toss sophomore Alex Najera. With an ERA above six and more walks than strikeouts, the lefty has been less than stellar this season.

“We need to make sure we have the same mentality we had over the weekend,” Cruz said. “Get quality at-bats early, get the leadoff guy on.”

It has been paramount for the Trojans to get on the board first this season, as they are 10-4 when they push the first run across the plate and just 3-15 when their opponents do.

It will be up to junior starter Brandon Garcia to keep the Waves off the board.

The right-hander went five strong innings last Tuesday against Loyola Marymount, but Cruz was reluctant to start him.

“The problem with pitching Garcia on Tuesday is that you don’t have him on the weekend until Sunday,” Cruz said. “Obviously he’s an important guy for us.”

Garcia faced five hitters in Sunday’s win over Stanford, and had some trouble throwing strikes. He walked one batter, hit another and was tagged with two runs in just two-thirds of an inning.

Had Garcia pitched more Sunday, it would have been difficult for him to recover on just one day of rest.

“We’ll probably have him give us three solid innings,” Cruz said. “Make it a staff day. That way we can have him starting Friday.”

Sophomore third baseman Adam Landecker remains out with a hamstring injury, forcing junior first baseman Ricky Oropesa to move across the infield and putting junior Matt Foat at first.

Sophomore J.R. Aguirre will continue to start in left field. The walk-on, hitting nearly .300 since he’s become a regular in the lineup, has become a spark for the Trojans on the field, including a straight steal of home on a botched squeeze play over the weekend.