Baseball takes two of three from WMU in opening weekend

The fireworks were on display Sunday from junior infielder Ben Ramirez, who cranked two homers in the 14-3 win. (James Wolfe / Daily Trojan)

The USC baseball team opened the 2020 season with a 35-run offensive outburst over the course of this weekend, taking two of three from Western Michigan at Dedeaux Field.

Nearly half those runs for USC came in the season opener Friday, when the Trojans used a 6-run third inning and 5-run eighth inning to coast to a commanding 16-2 win.  

USC cracked double digits on the scoreboard when sophomore outfielder Preston Hartsell cranked an opposite-field 2-run homer to left center in the sixth inning. It was one of two hits of the game for Hartsell, who drove in 3 runs.

Freshman infielder Johnny Olmstead added a big fly of his own, a pinch-hit eighth-inning mammoth grand slam to left in his first collegiate at bat.

Hartsell and Olmstead were two of 11 Trojans with at least one hit in the season opener.

“I think it just kind of all goes back to the intersquads,” Hartsell said. “We have two nine-person lineups that just bashed the ball, so I think we got 18 hitters coming off the bench in all situations that can bash.”

Junior righty Kyle Hurt started his second consecutive opening day for the Trojans, throwing three innings of 1-run ball before handing it over to junior lefty John Beller with an 8-1 lead. Beller twirled five innings allowing just two hits and 1 run before freshman righty Ethan Hoopingarner sealed the deal with two strikeouts in a 1-2-3 ninth inning. 

“[The offense] put up a 6-spot the inning before I came in,” Beller said. “So I’m able to come in there with a lot of confidence and just attack the zone and have a lot of faith in our defense.”

Head coach Jason Gill, who coached his first games at USC this weekend, said he told his players after the game they’d be making a mistake if they assumed things would come as easily on Saturday. 

As it turned out, Gill was right. 

Led by junior lefty Isaac Esqueda’s five scoreless innings, USC carried a 3-0 lead into the seventh inning Saturday. That’s when the wheels fell off for the Trojans. 

Three hits, two errors, three walks and a hit by pitch led to a 6-run seventh for the Broncos that ultimately proved fatal. With the bases loaded, one out and the Trojans still up by 3, redshirt senior lefty Quentin Longrie bobbled a comebacker and was unable to get a forceout at the plate. After Longrie walked in another run, junior lefty Brian Gursky came in but couldn’t stop the bleeding, and the Broncos jumped ahead late.

The Trojans had a golden opportunity to tie it up later, loading the bases with no outs in the eighth. However, WMU redshirt senior righty Jack Szott came in and retired the next three USC hitters, and the Broncos eventually came away with an 8-5 win. 

In the rubber match Sunday, the Trojans looked much more like Friday’s team than Saturday’s. 

Junior infielder Ben Ramirez led another offensive explosion, rocketing two missiles high off the Dedeaux Field scoreboard in right to drive in 3 runs and contribute to a series-clinching 14-3 victory.

“[They felt] really good,” Ramirez said of his two no-doubters. “[I] struggled a little bit [in the] first two games of the series, and something clicked today and I felt good.”

Ramirez’s three total hits left him tied with senior outfielder Brady Shockey and sophomore first baseman Clay Owens for the team lead with five on the young season.

The Trojans tallied 16 hits Sunday, giving them at least 10 in each of the season’s first three games. 

“Today I challenged them to not let [Western Michigan’s pitchers] off the hook, and they didn’t,” Gill said. “They kept pounding inning after inning, and even the innings we didn’t score, we threatened, so really proud of them.”

Despite Ramirez and the offense’s monster game, it was redshirt sophomore lefty Alex Cornwell who provided the feel-good story for the Trojans on Sunday. Cornwell, who started the finale after missing the previous two seasons with injuries, flashed elite stuff all game and was charged with just 2 runs over 5.2 innings while striking out six. 

“It was surreal,” Cornwell said of his return to the mound. “It was something that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. I’m speechless. Words don’t describe the excitement.”

Hoopingarner closed out the series for the Trojans, striking out five in just two innings of work. Hoopingarner faced nine batters over the weekend across three perfect innings and struck out a staggering seven. 

The Trojans will have an off day Monday before getting back to work in preparation for the Tony Gwynn Classic in San Diego next weekend. 

“Even though we scored a lot of runs and did a lot of things right, there’s some things that we can’t sweep under the carpet that we’re gonna have to attack on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday before we head down to San Diego for that tournament,” Gill said.