USC baseball is highly regarded for its championship heritage, winning 12 national and 33 conference titles during its long history, and players are hoping to spark some winning ways back to the program by starting off the 2014 season on the right foot with 10 of their first 11 games at Dedeaux Field.
After finishing last season 20-36 (10-20) under first-year head coach Dan Hubbs, who was literally thrust into the position three days before the season opener against top-ten program Cal State Fullerton, USC is reloading with an experienced roster that believes it can finish the season over .500 for the first time since 2005.
It starts up top with a unified coaching staff that brings along tremendous additions on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. Former Cal State Northridge head coach Matt Curtis, who guided the 2013 Matadors team to a 31-26 mark - the program's best season since its regional appearance in 2002, will join Hubbs to improve the Trojans' offense. Another newcomer is volunteer assistant Vinny Lopez, who brings professional experience from the Texas Rangers.
The Trojans feature Senior Kevin Swick (.306), power-hitting sophomores Vahn Bozoian (2 HR) and Timmy Robinson (23 RBI) in the middle of the lineup. Robinson finished fourth last season in team batting average and doubles.
USC welcomes touted SoCal prospect Jeremy Martinez (Mater Dei HS) to the fold as an immediate contributor to the lineup at catcher, first base and also DH this season. Martinez, alongside up-and-coming freshmen Frankie Rios (Lakewood, Calif.) and Corey Dempster (South Pasadena, Calif.) are expected to make an impact on a roster that features 23 underclassmen that are polished beyond their years.
These young three players will need to fill the large void left from departing Trojans Adam Landecker (Pac-12 2Bs Leader), James Roberts (USC HR Leader) and Greg Zebrack (23 RBI), who carried most of USC's offense last year.
Health could be in USC's favor this spring as injured starters Omar Cotto Lozada and Dante Flores (.310 freshman BA in 2012) provide spark-plug speed near the top of the order. Combine that with a veteran hitting catcher in Garrett Stubbs, and the Trojans look to have some major depth in the order from top to bottom.
But if the Trojans are to make any massive strides from last season, the pitching staff will need to continue developing. Hubbs returns his entire rotation featuring junior Wyatt Strahan (4-3, 2.45 ERA), senior Bob Wheatley (3-4, 2.78 ERA) and sophomore standout Kyle Twomey (2-8, 5.55 ERA) among the many capable arms in the rotation.
USC finished last in the Pac-12 last season with a 4.81 team ERA thanks in large part to an inexperienced and unreliable bullpen which Hubbs described meekly:
"There was a couple of weeks where I'd basically pick whoever pitched worse the day before, because it meant he'd pitch good today," according to Nick Burton of the Daily Trojan.
What the Trojans do have this year is depth, and plenty of experience to work through any tough bumps in the road. Along with the three starters, USC has strong middle relievers in Nigel Nootbaar and Sean Silva (9 combined games started from last season) that could fulfill almost any role on the mound this season.
One player to watch out of the pen this season would be Nigel Nootbaar after being named the 13th-best prospect in the Pac-12 conference by Baseball America. Nootbaar (2-6, 5.10 ERA) returns to the bump following a breakout sophomore campaign featuring a complete-game shutout against Washington State, and three saves out of the bullpen.
Like many of the top-flight programs, the greatest difference between a winning and losing campaign will rest on the team's ability to scratch and claw for victories late in the ballgame. Just last season alone, USC lost 12 games by either one or two runs, including each of the matchups in a three-game series against eventual national champion UCLA.
USC kicks off the 2014 season with a three-game home series against Northwestern (22-26, 9-15), who will be leaving freezing cold conditions outside Chicago for beautiful Dedeaux Field. First pitch is scheduled for just after 6 p.m. and fans can watch the action unfold live on usctrojans.com (with your's truly on the broadcast) for USC Athletics.
PROBABLE WEEKEND STARTERS:
Friday, Feb. 14 6 p.m. --RHP Wyatt Strahan vs. RHP Brandon Magallones (5-6, 3.30 ERA)
Saturday, Feb. 15 2 p.m. --LHP Bob Wheatley vs. LHP Mtt Portland (2-3, 4.76 ERA)
Sunday, Feb. 16 1 p.m. --LHP Kyle Twomey vs. LHP Reed Mason (2-1, 2.92 ERA)