It’s been a long detour from success for USC’s storied baseball team.
Gone are the days of Mark Prior, Barry Zito and Ian Kennedy. Gone are the back-to-back national championships. Gone are winning seasons in general. With USC’s last postseason appareance in 2005, the past five years have not been kind to this USC squad, which has struggled to find consistency on the field and in management.
The team’s legacy — you know, the one represented by twice as many national titles (12) as the next closest schools, Texas and Louisiana State University — has taken a severe hit as a result.
Not many people at this university see Trojan baseball as the powerhouse program it once was, and the same can be said for much of the top talent looking to be recruited out of high school by programs promising wins and national exposure.
It must come as a bit of a surprise to many people to learn that USC’s current ball club is in the process of kicking their recent losing habits. With a 7-1 record to open the year, the Trojans are off to its best start since 1988 — and they have looked impressive in the process.
A major reason for the turnaround has been a visible improvement on the mound. With a starting rotation anchored by seniors Andrew Triggs and Ben Mount, and a bullpen showing vast improvements in consistency over last year, the Trojans have managed a collective 2.79 ERA and 80 strikeouts over 71 innings.
It hasn’t hurt that the offense has shown up too. USC has scored eight or more runs in five of its eight games thus far, amassing 60 runs on the season.
Senior Matt Foat has led the charge, hitting .424 with a home run and seven RBI, and sophomore Kevin Swick has a .464 average and has knocked in five RBI in the process.
Certainly all positives for a team that finished seventh in the Pac-10 last season with a 25-31 record. But as is to be expected of a youthful team looking to bounce back into competitive form, this early start should be taken as just that — an early start.
With Jacksonville University, Long Beach State and Akron, the Trojans haven’t exactly faced powerhouse ball clubs in their seven wins, and their one loss to Pepperdine was fairly decisive.
With a road trip to face No. 5 North Carolina this weekend, USC will meet its toughest challenge of the season at a point where the team is still working to get a full sense of its strengths and abilities.
And though the Trojans have gotten solid production from many of their veterans so far, USC’s chances of turning this initial progress into season-long success relies squarely on the freshman class to pull its weight accordingly.
Some have already stepped up — freshman relief pitcher Wyatt Strahan has gone 5.2 innings without allowing a run, while highly touted infielder Dante Flores has already recorded a triple and a pair of RBIs in just four games — but many others, namely freshman starting pitcher Stephen Tarpley, have yet to show they are fully ready to compete at the college level.
Cruz, in only his second year at the helm of the Trojans, has shown he knows how to win at USC.
But with his relative inexperience as coach and the range of youth in front of him, there remain several uncertainties about the staying power of this early success.
If the Trojans can maintain the same composure they’ve shown in the beginning of the season and continue to form a new identity around winning baseball games, consistency will eventually come.
But only in that long-term maturation process will the proper foundation be formed upon which winning seasons can build on.
Until then, a return to tradition still seems distant.
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