Though the major leaguers are starting their season this week, the USC baseball team reaches the halfway point of its season tonight when it hosts UC Irvine at Dedeaux Field.
The matchup marks the Trojans’ (11-16) first game at home since March 17, having spent most of spring break on the road and the past weekend at Cal.
USC emerged from Berkeley with their first conference series win of the year and its first conference series road victory since 2011. The Trojans will play at home for seven of their next eight games and don’t leave Los Angeles again for three weeks, a welcome respite for a road-weary team.
“It’s great to be back here at home,” said freshman shortstop Blake Lacey after Monday’s practice, just the team’s second at Dedeaux Field since spring break began. “You could tell the guys were just a little more excited, — practice was a little more lively.”
The game against the Anteaters (16-8) will be no respite for the Trojans, however. UC Irvine is a team that consistently punishes opposing pitchers. Six starters are slugging above .400, and the onslaught is led by sophomore Connor Spencer’s .416 batting average, .481 on base percentage and .551 slugging percentage.
That’s not exactly what the Trojans need to be going up against, especially considering the season-long struggles of their bullpen.
But with the always-challenging Stanford Cardinal looming next weekend, USC head coach Dan Hubbs said he needs to use tonight’s game to get a few of his relievers back on track. That starts with sophomore Nigel Nootbaar, who will start on the mound against the Anteaters.
“Nootbaar’s really been scuffling,” Hubbs said. “He was our best reliever at the start of the year, and we need him pitch like that again.”
Nootbaar had a 2.30 ERA heading into spring break, having allowed just four earned runs over 15 2/3 innings. Since then, he’s allowed nine runs in two 2/3 innings, ballooning his ERA to 6.50.
Hubbs said that, though he would love to see Nootbaar dominate as he did in his only other start of the year at Fresno State, when he struck out 12 over six innings. But if he doesn’t, there is a good chance Hubbs will use tomorrow as an all-staff day.
“It may end up being scripted,” Hubbs said. “So after Nootbaar’s done, we have a few guys lined up who will each go one inning and then get out. That way they all get a chance, and no one tires themselves out for the weekend.”
The bullpen has been wildly inconsistent all year for the Trojans, with a pitcher dominating one day then surrendering four runs in his next outing.
“Our issues are our issues,” Hubbs said. “One of those is a young pitching staff. That can only change so much.”
USC’s other big issue has been timely hitting. The Trojans have about as many total hits as their opponents, but have close to 50 fewer runs scored. USC has stranded enough runners at third and hit into enough rally-killing double plays to make a coach pull his hair out, as Hubbs has no doubt done at times.
But the Trojans looked a lot better at the plate over the weekend in Berkeley, and it appears as if Hubbs has finally found a lineup he plans to stick with after spending most of the season tinkering with the roster. The team hopes to keep that momentum and discipline going into tonight and moving forward this weekend.
“It’s nice to have a secure lineup that you can go to,” Lacey said. “Adjustments are needed every once in a while, but it’s good to have the same guys around you who you can trust to get the job done.”
First pitch is scheduled for 6 p.m., and the first 100 students in attendance will receive free tacos in accordance with “Taco Tuesday.” The game can be followed live on USC’s official athletic site.