USC captures season opening series against Utah Valley

Freshman infielder Ben Ramirez takes a swing against Utah Valley. Alex Zhang | Daily Trojan

The USC baseball team opened its season Friday at Dedeaux Field against Utah Valley University, the beginning of a three-game home stand. The Trojans entered opening day looking to rebound from a disappointing 2017 season in which the team went 21-34 and finished tied for last in the Pac-12 standings. USC would win the opening series 2-1.

The bats on both sides were sluggish to start the season. Sophomore Chris Clarke and senior Jake Mayer, the starters for USC and Utah Valley respectively, were dealing in the early innings. Through four frames, the teams combined for eight strikeouts and five hits. The Trojans began the first three innings with hits, only to be followed by threestraight-outs each time.

Utah Valley struck first, as first baseman Callahan Moltzan scored from second on a triple by third baseman Paul Estrada in the top of the fifth. Right fielder Jackson Overlund followed with a three-run home run off of Clarke in the sixth, making it 4-0 Wolverines.

The Trojans mustered 1 run in the bottom of the sixth when junior left fielder Lars Nootbaar scored on an error, but the Trojans couldn’t keep momentum. A passed ball with a runner on third in the top of the seventh made it 5-1 Utah Valley, and the Wolverines held on to win by that score.

“Their kid did a nice job, but we didn’t swing the bats like we’re capable of,” USC head coach Dan Hubbs said. “Whether it was first game jitters, excitement, whatever it was, it wasn’t like us.”

Sophomore center fielder Matthew Acosta was one of several Trojans to go hitless on Friday.

“It felt like nothing was going our way today, but you know, that’s going to happen in baseball,” Acosta said. “It’s a game of failure, you have to go through adversity.”

For much of the second game on Saturday, it seemed that the result would be the same. The Wolverines took advantage of a shaky outing by junior starting pitcher Quentin Longrie, scoring two of their three second-inning runs on walks with the bases loaded.

But the Trojans weren’t dead. With USC down 4-0 in the fifth inning, Nootbaar homered to right field. Two innings later, after sophomore right fielder Brady Shockey scored on a wild pitch, Acosta put the Trojans up by one with a 3-run bomb to right field.

“I was looking for a fastball up, something I could elevate so a runner could tag up,” Acosta said of the play. “But I just got one I could control and put a good swing on it. [It was] just lucky I got one, lucky to help the team get the W. That’s all that matters.”

The Wolverines got a possible game-tying runner to second with one out in the top of the ninth, but sophomore reliever Connor Lunn struck out the next two hitters to end the game with the save. Freshman reliever John Beller earned his first win as a Trojan.

The Trojans opened the scoring in Sunday’s third game in the bottom of the second inning when junior first baseman Dillon Paulson scored on an error. The Wolverines responded by scoring 3 runs in the top of the third.

After trading runs in the next two half innings, USC surged ahead in the bottom of the fifth. With the bases loaded and no outs, Shockey singled up the middle, driving in Paulson and redshirt junior third baseman Angelo Armenta. A bunt single from redshirt sophomore catcher Kaleb Murphy turned into a score on an errant throw from Utah Valley third baseman Paul Estrada, allowing Ramirez to score from second.

Junior second baseman Brandon Perez came through with his second and third RBIs of the day on a two-out single up the middle, bringing in Shockey and Murphy. Sophomore designated hitter Blake Sabol’s grand rule double to center scored Perez, bringing the Trojans’ runs in the inning to 6, making the score 8-4.

“We were just trying to get a couple on the board just to get us some momentum going into the next innings,” Perez said of the onslaught. “Luckily we put up a big lopsided number and that usually ends up resulting in a win.”

With 12 total hits, USC looked like a completely different team than the one that was blanked by Utah Valley in the season opener.

“I thought the guys put good at-bats together,” Hubbs said. “We were able to get some free bases and then came up with a couple big hits. I was just excited about the at-bats the guys took throughout the game.”

But nothing came easy for the Trojans this series, and this game was no different. A triple from Overlund and a sacrifice fly from catcher Drew Sims cut the USC lead to 2 runs in the seventh inning. Those would be the final runs of the game, however, as Lunn would close out the ninth for his second-straight save. Junior reliever Solomon Bates picked up the win.

The bullpen was the saving grace for the Trojans; of the 15 runs Utah Valley scored across three games, the bullpen was only responsible for three, and shut the Wolverines down in Saturday’s nail-biter when they were needed the most.

“All in all, I thought our bullpen was fantastic,” Hubbs said. “I was really pleased with what I saw. They came in and attacked the strike-zone for the most part. They all have good stuff and know how to use it, so that was definitely a bright spot.”

On the flip side, Hubbs singled out the starting pitching as an area for improvement.

“We’ve got to get our starters throwing the way they’re capable of,” he said. “We’ve got to have longer starts so our bullpen isn’t going five innings every game.”

With a young team, there are going to be ups and downs. Hubbs is more focused on how his players respond to the rough patches.

“The biggest thing was the resiliency of the guys,” he said of the series. “They were able to bounce back after losing the first game. I think that’ll go a long way for the rest of the year for this team.”