There's no getting around it: USC baseball has spent the past decade far removed from its legacy of greatness. Eight seasons without a winning record, 11 seasons without a conference title or CWS appearance, and 15 seasons without a national championship. Oh, yeah, and speaking of national championships, the baseball team across town just won one last year.
So now, with head coach Dan Hubbs entering his second season and Baseball America projecting the Trojans to finally end their postseason drought, USC began the 2014 season with a three-game sweep of the Northwestern Wildcats. The series included two extra-inning games, an inning that showed the Trojans' potential on offense and the unveiling of a new statue of legendary USC coach Rod Dedeaux.
The season opened on Friday with the Trojans failing more than once to put the game away. Leading 3-2 and with the Wildcats down to their last out in the ninth, shortstop Kyle Ruchim hit a double into center field, followed by a game-tying RBI base hit by Northwestern catcher Scott Heelan. In the bottom of the ninth, USC was able to advance sophomore A.J. Ramirez to third with two outs.
Catcher Garrett Stubbs attempted a squeeze play to bring Ramirez in, but Wildcats reliever Jack Quigley was able to pick up the ball and tag Ramirez out with a last-gasp reach to force extra innings. In the 10th, USC had the bases loaded with one out, but failed to score after a fielder's choice at the plate and a strikeout.
Finally, in the 11th, USC was able to capitalize on Northwestern's mistakes. The Trojans loaded the bases on a base hit, a hit by pitch and a bunt single. Sophomore centerfielder Timmy Robinson hit a ball to third, and the throw to the plate went over the catcher's head, allowing the winning run for the Trojans to come in.
On Saturday, the free baseball continued with a game that was almost five hours long. The pitchers on both teams were strong, as a combined 27 men were left on base. Junior Trojan reliever Nigel Nootbaar had a particularly strong showing. Called on to pitch during the extra innings, he provided five innings of scoreless relief with eight strikeouts. The biggest beneficiary, though, was senior James Guillen, who pitched in the deciding inning in both games and now has a 2-0 record to start the season.
In the 15th inning, a lead-off walk by SC second baseman Dante Flores was followed by a base hit from Jeremy Martinez that allowed Flores to sprint all the way to third. Next up was freshman Joe Corrigan, who was making his collegiate debut. He made a great first impression, hitting a deep fly ball to right field that became the walk-off sacrifice RBI for USC.
On Sunday, the young Trojans got a big audience for the sweep opportunity. Athletic Director Pat Haden and USC president Max Nikias were on hand to unveil a new statue of 11-time national champion coach Rod Dedeaux. USC alumnus and future Hall Of Famer Randy Johnson and Dodger legend Tommy Lasorda were also there, and the Trojans made sure this game would be decided much earlier than the previous ones.
Sophomore Vahn Bozoian hit the team's first home run of the season, a two-run shot into left field in the third inning. Though the Wildcats would even up the game at 5-5 in the top of the fifth, USC immediately responded with an offensive onslaught. The bottom of the fifth saw the Trojans get seven runs on seven hits and 11 at-bats. Ten Trojans notched hits in the game, the most successful being Ramirez, who went 4-for-4 with three RBIs. USC won the game 13-6, giving them their first series sweep since March 11, 2012.
It's a good start for SC, but now it will be tested with a tough early opponent. On Tuesday night, top-10 opponent Cal State Fullerton comes to Dedeaux Field, holding a four-game winning streak over the Trojans. They may be vulnerable, though, as Washington State was able to get one win over them in their opening series. The game will be aired on Pac-12 Network at 6 PM. After that, USC has a three-game homestand against North Dakota State next weekend.