USC Baseball Enters Critical Stretch For Possible Postseason Berth

John McGillen --USC Athletics

If USC wants to make the tournament for the first time since 2005, they're gonna have to win some big series down the stretch.

USC Baseball was riding an emotional high last week after sweeping the Bruins in Westwood, pushing their winning streak to nine straight games. But after suffering an error-filled loss against UC Irvine, 6-2 on Tuesday night, the Trojans dropped two of three games against the Washington State Cougars.

On Sunday, USC and WSU were all tied up 1-1 heading into the top of the 8th inning when the bats finally came alive. Riding a strong start from LHP Bob Wheatley, who allowed just one run on three hits in six innings, the top of the lineup in Kevin Swick (2-5, R, RBI) and Garrett Stubbs (2-4, R, 2 RBI) kicked the offense in motion sparking a six-run frame.

Dante Flores also chipped in with a two-hit performance while Timmy Robinson and Bobby Stahel each drove in runs to put the Trojans on top. USC's bullpen, which has benefited from strong starting pitching over the last month, shut the door for three hitless innings of scoreless relief behind Wheatley to secure the much-needed series finale.

After going just 1-3 this past week, the Trojans RPI dropped to 65th overall and the squad fell from 3rd to 5th place in the Pac-12 Standings. If USC wants to make the postseason, they ideally would like to finish 6-2 down the stretch for an overall record of 31-22 on the season while remaining inside the top half of the conference rankings.

The most disappointing loss this past week came on Saturday when USC had the go-ahead runner just 90 feet away from scoring in top of the 9th inning but were unable to cash in the run. Timmy Robinson, who smashed an RBI double to tie the game up against closer Ian Hamilton, was stranded after Omar Cotto Lozada and AJ Ramirez struck out.

Then in extra innings, Kyle Davis, who has now appeared in 21 games, gave up the winning run on a walk-off single from Patrick McGrath. Interestingly enough, Davis has been spectacular this season with his 1.36 ERA and six saves as the closer. But when Davis has allowed a run, the Trojans are in fact 0-5 (in those 5 games) on the year.

That all said, USC's entire rotation to even its bullpen has been much improved from last season, when the entire squad posted an ERA above 5.00 as the worst pitching staff in the Pac-12 Conference. This season USC boasts 3.38 ERA, which is currently fourth best in the conference and arguably one of the biggest predictors for its success.

But back to this series for one quick second. USC actually jumped out to a promising 2-0 lead in Friday night's series opener, but the Cougars came storming back with two in the 2nd inning and then the game-deciding three-run 7th. The Trojan bats were silenced after that frame, as Cougars starter Joe Pistorese worked 8.2 IP of solid ball to earn the win.

Exiting the series 25-20 overall (13-11 Pac-12), the Trojans have some very winnable games upcoming on the schedule. They return home this weekend, which could be filled with some distractions during the height of semester finals, before hosting Cal Berkeley (19-24, 7-14) who USC beat on the road two out of three times last season.

The formula for success has been laid out for these upstart Trojans. Get strong starting pitching, play situational small ball to move runners over, and then get the big hits (or SAC FLY's) to drive in crucial runs. Just to put their success into perspective, USC is 11-7 this season in one-run games and are 8-4 when they score right away in the first inning.

Following the Cal Berkeley series where USC will NEED to win at least two games, the Trojans play two mid-week games against a much-improved Grand Canyon State squad on Monday before traveling to a somewhat struggling power in Cal State Fullerton on Tuesday, who like USC is sitting right on the edge of NCAA postseason contention.

And then USC returns home for the final and most pivotal series left on the schedule against current Pac-12 leaders Oregon State (34-8, 17-4), who pounded the Trojans by an aggregate 19-5 tally in a three-game sweep up in Corvallis last year.

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