Baseball prepares for 2019 season opener series

Junior catcher/outfielder Blake Sabol led the Trojans with eight stolen bases for a perfect success rate in 2018. (Tucker Judkins/Daily Trojan)

The USC baseball team looks to bounce back from a below .500 2018 season and reclaim its spot at the top of the Pac-12 with the season beginning Friday against Nebraska Omaha.

The Trojans have secured 12 NCAA baseball titles, doubling the record of any other team in the nation. Over 130 seasons, they have led the Pac-12 with 38 conference championships and a .634 winning percentage.

In recent years, however, USC has suffered a different fate. The Trojans have not claimed a College World Series title since 1998, won a conference championship since 2002 or finished a season with a winning record since 2015.

USC will have to overcome the loss of three key players to the 2018 MLB Draft. Right-handed pitcher Solomon Bates and outfielder Lars Nootbaar were selected in the eighth round and first basemen Dillon Paulson was selected in the 13th. None will be returning to USC for their senior seasons.

Of course, the three players selected in the draft weren’t the only contributors in 2018, and the team will look for strong performances from its remaining key players, if they want to find success on the diamond this season.

Redshirt junior catcher Kaleb Murphy will look to build on a 2018 season that saw him lead the Trojans with a .333 batting average and a .376 on-base percentage, fitting for second on the team. Murphy threw out 16 percent of would-be base-stealers in 2018 and will aim to increase that figure to minimize the running game against the Trojans.

Junior catcher/outfielder Blake Sabol posted a .390 slugging percentage for the Trojans in 2018 with a .425 in conference play, second only to Paulson’s mark of .500. Sabol was a mainstay in the lineup for the 2018 club, starting all 54 games for the Trojans last season. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Sabol led the Trojans with eight stolen bases for a perfect success rate last year. He made only one error for a .996 fielding percentage, cranking four home runs on the season and earning himself an All Pac-12 honorable mention.

In his first season at USC since  transferring from Georgetown University, senior infielder Chase Bushor appeared in 52 games for the Trojans in 2018, posting a batting average of just above .300. Bushor finished the season with 52 hits — second only to Sabol — 11 of them for extra bases and a .382 slugging percentage for second among returning Trojans. Bushor helped lead USC’s middle infield to 0.91 double plays per game, just a tick behind Washington State for first in the Pac-12. Bushor finished the year with an 11-game hitting streak.

Sophomore right-handed pitcher Kyle Hurt will look to fill the void left by Bates in 2019. Hurt led the Trojans with 81.1 innings pitched on the year and started 14 games for USC, accumulating a 4.76 earned run average and holding opposing hitters to a modest .238 batting average.

Junior pitcher Connor Lunn and sophomore pitcher John Beller were integral parts of the Trojans’ bullpen in 2018, and they will play key roles on the mound this season. Pitcher Quentin Longrie will also add to the Trojans’ prowess in 2019.

According to Perfect Game, the Trojans boast the No. 16 best freshman recruiting class in the country for the class of 2018. Outfielder Preston Hartsell is the highest ranked in the Trojans’ class, coming in at No. 15 in the nation. Pitcher Chandler Champlain ranks No. 34, and he was selected in the 38th round of the 2018 MLB Draft by the Los Angeles Angels while ranked the 120th best prospect in his draft class. Pitcher Ethan Reed was the fourth-ranked pitcher in California, ranked at No. 39 overall nationally.

The Trojans add to their impressive recruiting class with infielder Emilio Rosas, ranked No. 54 by Perfect Game for the 2018 class. Pitchers Carson Lambert and Calvin Schapira and catcher/third baseman Clay Owens also ranked in the top 500 nationally.

Six other freshmen round out the Trojans’ stacked class of 2022, which ranked higher than any other Pac-12 or West Coast team.

USC kicks off the 2019 season with a three-game home series against Nebraska Omaha at Dedeaux Field this weekend. Friday’s season opener will start at 6 p.m., Saturday’s matchup is at 2 p.m. and Sunday’s finale is at 12 p.m.