After weekend trip, Trojans face Titans

After a trip to one of college baseball’s toughest places to play, No. 21 USC baseball returns home with a better sense of where the team is headed this season.

Swinging away · Senior outfielder Sean Spear and USC are hitting .304 as a team this year. The Trojans have won eight of their first 11 games. - Corey Marquetti | Daily Trojan

The Trojans began the year 7-0 but now sit at 8-3 after falling twice to the University of North Carolina over the weekend. USC, however,  played the Tar Heels dead even in the final two games of the series, and salvaged the final game 5-2 thanks to the best start of freshman Stephen Tarpley’s young collegiate career.

“Any time you beat a team that’s in the top of the ranks like North Carolina is, it helps your confidence,” USC coach Frank Cruz said. “However, we went into that series expecting to win it, not just to take one game. I told the guys on Saturday, ‘We’re not here to compete. We’re here to win.’”

Now the Trojans are back at the friendly confines of Dedeaux Field to take on a stout Cal State Fullerton team that has won seven straight to begin the year 9-3.

The Titans’ streak is due in most part to the recent success of their pitching staff. During its seven-game run, Fullerton has only given up more than three runs once, and have allowed only six runs over its last five games. The combined score during the streak is Cal State Fullerton 43, opponents 18.

“They’re always really good,” Cruz said of the Titans. “There’s no surprise that they’re doing what they’re doing. We’re going to be up against an offense that does a really nice job, and then of course their pitching has been excellent, too.”

Amid his praise for Fullerton, Cruz also noted that his team will be prepared.

“What we’re going to do — what we’ve got to do — to be successful is to play catch,” Cruz said. “We’ve been playing pretty well defensively and I think that’ll continue as long as we’re sharp. I know [Fullerton] will be tough, so we’ve got to make sure we catch the ball.”

USC’s pitching hasn’t exactly been slumping, either. After a hiccup from Tarpley and senior pitchers Andrew Triggs and Ben Mount combined to hold the Tar Heels to three earned runs in 13 2/3 innings, with 14 strikeouts and five walks.

Add in the fact that USC has given up more than three runs just three times all year, and the pitching staff starts to resemble a strength that the Trojans should be able to rely on for the rest of the season.

“They can get better,” Cruz said. “But we’ve gotten some really nice outings from Mount. Tarpley has thrown a few too many balls at times, but he’s been impressive, too.”

Senior pitcher Brandon Garcia, the de facto fourth starter for USC, will likely get his third start of the season against Fullerton, looking to rebound from a four-inning outing against Pepperdine last Tuesday.

“Brandon can obviously throw better than he did last week,” Cruz said. “He didn’t throw as many strikes as we wanted, and because of that, he got in trouble. If he keeps it in the strike zone, he’ll be fine.”

Garcia will likely be up against the Titans’ Koby Gauna, who is coming off a tidy five-inning, one-run effort against Loyola MarymountUniversity.

First pitch Tuesday night is at 6 p.m. at Dedeaux Field.