It’s hard to put your trust in a freshman. Never mind the dazzling records, the overstuffed trophy case or the mile-long list of recognitions they bring with them to college. An 18-year-old with zero experience is usually not the first person one would turn to with the game on the line and nerves running sky-high.
This is true with even the most elite rookies — remember Matt Barkley? Even the most hyped quarterback recruit in USC’s history brought with him mountains of speculation and uncertainty when he took the field as a true freshman.
The Trojans ended up losing five of 13 games his first year.
A lot changes in a couple of seasons.
So it was with this mentality that I, in this very column four weeks ago, tried to downplay expectations surrounding freshman Stephen Tarpley, a highly touted, hard-throwing starting pitcher for the USC baseball team.
Despite obvious signs of talent — the Cleveland Indians drafted the 19-year-old in 2011 — I saw his youth and inexperience as more than enough reason to hold off on conjuring up images of dominance just a week into the season.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when the young left-hander took the mound against No. 6 North Carolina in early March and proceeded to throw six strong innings of baseball to earn his first win. And then he impressed again a week later, when he shut out Cal State Bakersfield for eight innings while striking out 10 batters to move to 2-0 on the season.
He didn’t stop there.
After grinding out a win against Utah, Tarpley faced his biggest challenge of the season in No. 2 Stanford. Playing in Palo Alto, Calif., the freshman bent but never broke, going 6 1/3 innings while only giving up two runs.
The Trojans wasted no time in supporting their pitcher by knocking out opposing starter John Hochstatter in just 1 2/3 innings en route to an 8-4 victory.
To top things off, Tarpley hasn’t let his early dominance faze him. Since the big win over Stanford, the lefty has gone seven innings — and counting — without giving up an earned run. He’s shown some flexibility too, coming in mid-game to bail the Trojans out of a fourth-inning jam against Loyola Marymount with the score knotted 2-2.
Seven starts, four wins — including two against top-10 teams — a 2.72 ERA and 46 strikeouts over 43 innings pitched. Not exactly the learning curve struggles you’d expect from a first-year player.
If this were another time and place, I would be sure to insert a disclaimer to every Trojan hopeful reading this — Something along the lines of: There is much more baseball to be played. The Trojans are in the thick of their best season since 2005, but with the series against Pac-12 powerhouses UCLA, Arizona and Oregon remaining, postseason hopes still sit on the backburner.
Especially with the youth that USC puts on the field from game to game, there are no guarantees this early success will hold up.
I sang a much similar tune a month ago to, fortunately, no avail. The youth, led by Tarpley and his gems on the mound, have continued to produce for a squad desperate for their contributions.
So no matter the reason behind the team’s competitive play this season, it’s apparent a change has taken place. Gone is the stale air that lingered over Dedeaux the past six seasons, miring Trojan baseball in mediocrity.
Things seem fresh, right down to the face of the 19-year-old lefty making everyone swing and miss.
Maybe freshmen aren’t so hard to trust after all.
I, for one, have gotten on board. This team has a chance to finally break through to the upper tier of the Pac-12. Heck, maybe even an NCAA tournament appearance.
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