Jung Money: Baseball may not be back on track yet

Ollie Jung | Daily Trojan

All eyes were on Cromwell Field on Wednesday as Sam Darnold showed off in the rain to make his case to be the top overall pick at the NFL draft next month. The now-former Trojan superstar impressed in front of all 32 teams while the NFL Network broadcasted his Pro Day around the country.

Unfortunately for Trojan fans, Darnold’s contributions to USC are now limited to being an ambassador at the next level. He can no longer add to the trophy cabinet in Heritage Hall, and he’s done scrambling around the Coliseum — at least on Saturdays. But there are plenty of other squads to root for on campus, from the third-ranked women’s water polo team to the men’s golf program and Justin Suh: the nation’s top collegiate player.

One of the best shows on campus plays just down the road from where Darnold held his workout. A few nights before cameras gathered all over Cromwell, the baseball team took down Utah 5-2 at Dedeaux Field to earn a series victory to open Pac-12 play. History was made during the opener on Thursday, when the Trojans no-hit the Utes behind 7-2/3 wicked frames from freshman Kyle Hurt, who was pitching just his fourth career game.

USC isn’t ranked, nor is its 11-6 record threatening to break into the national conversation, but the roster is certainly a lot of fun to watch. Head coach Dan Hubbs’ side dropped an 8-7 thriller against UC Irvine on Tuesday night after staging two separate rallies to fight back from deficits of 4-0 and 7-5. The Trojans beat No. 11 UCLA in Dodger Stadium two weeks ago and have played to a strong 8-3 record at home so far this spring. Their only dropped series to date was a trip to Arkansas against the fifth-ranked Razorbacks (the Trojans gave up two runs in the final frame to lose the rubber game 7-6). Other than the team’s visit to Irvine this week, USC’s only one-off defeat came versus No. 8 TCU.

It’s impressive stuff for a program that was picked to finish third-from-bottom in the Pac-12 in the preseason media poll. With a roster featuring a mix of steady veterans and inexperienced energy, could this year’s Trojans stage a surprise postseason chase for the first time since 2015? As young prospects like Hurt begin to carve out their legacies, can seasoned players like junior Lars Nootbaar and Brad Wegman cement theirs with a run at the College World Series?

Hopeful as fans may be, it is still far too early to even dream of what lies beyond the next two months — or even two series. I made the mistake of buying in too early last season, when I penned a column at a similar point during the 2017 campaign. USC was 15-8, with two series wins to begin the conference schedule after being picked to finish second-to-last in the Pac-12. It was an eerily familiar start: a strong home record coupled with a marquee win over the Bruins in Chavez Ravine.

“It seemed like the Trojans were back on the road to a championship before last season’s stumble,” I wrote. “Perhaps this year’s underdog side is about to get things on track again, no matter what the experts may predict.”

Turns out, the experts were spot-on. The Trojans imploded over the final two-thirds of the season, stumbling to a 6-26 record the rest of the way and finishing tied for last in the conference. After compiling a 27-27 record in 2016, USC dropped to 21-34 in 2017, lowlighted by a rough 6-20 mark away from home.

So, as excited as I am for the Trojans’ potential this spring, I will not jinx them again. Being honest, it seems pretty obvious what awaits them in their next series: a three-game set on the road against No. 3 Stanford. It’s hard to imagine USC will pose much of a challenge to the high-flying Cardinal, who boast a 14-2 record (10-1 at home).

And once the Trojans return from the Bay Area, their schedule quickly becomes unforgiving. Just look at this stretch beginning in mid-April: a home series against a traditionally strong Arizona program (picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12), then a crosstown visit to UCLA followed by back-to-back unenviable trips to Eugene, Ore. and Pullman, Wash., and finally, a home date versus defending conference champion Oregon State — who totaled six losses over the entirety of last season for a 56-6 record.

With such towering roadblocks standing in USC’s way, I fully expect Hubbs’ squad to watch the postseason from home. No matter how precocious the team may be, the strength of the Pac-12 as a whole appears too high to expect the Trojans to punch above their weight over the course of a full campaign.

Then again, they did nearly steal a series away from the fifth-ranked program in the country just a few weeks ago — all the way in Fayetteville, Ark., no less. Let’s see if USC can make a statement and go one better this weekend.