Following last week’s road trip to North Carolina for games against Wake Forest and Duke, the USC baseball team returned to Los Angeles last weekend for the Dodgertown Baseball Classic. After losing games to San Diego and Michigan at home, USC finished the weekend with a big win over UCLA at Dodger Stadium.
“I told the kids after the [Michigan] game, it’s our first opportunity of what I hope is not very many — when you’re down 0-2 and have to come and salvage the weekend,” head coach Dan Hubbs said. “We got down early, and to the kids’ credit, they came [back] and stuck with it. I’m really proud of them for that because it’s easy when you’re inexperienced to wear it for the third day.”
In their first game of the Classic back at Dedeaux Field, the Trojans faced off against the University of San Diego on Friday. The game was close early on, until a five-run fifth inning by the Toreros sealed the Trojans’ fate. San Diego won 8-3 despite recording one fewer hit than USC.
The Trojans looked to rebound on Saturday against Michigan, once again at their home ballpark. However, they instead dropped their second game in a row. This time, USC encountered a cold night at the plate, only mustering three hits en route to a 4-1 loss.
In the concluding game of the weekend at Dodger Stadium, the Trojans squared off against crosstown rival UCLA. The Bruins jumped out to an early lead in the second inning thanks to a solo home run to left field from second baseman Chase Strumpf. UCLA then scored on an error in the third and again on a sacrifice fly in the fourth to extend its advantage to 3-0.
For the first five innings, the Trojan lineup had no answer for UCLA’s sophomore right hander Jon Olsen. Beginning the bottom of the sixth, Olsen had struck out eight batters and given up just one hit: a first inning double by redshirt junior shortstop Frankie Rios. However, with two outs in the sixth, sophomore first baseman Lars Nootbaar trimmed the Bruins’ advantage to one with a wall-scraping triple that brought home two runs. After UCLA head coach John Savage replaced Olsen with Ryan Garcia, freshman outfielder Matthew Acosta drove Nootbaar home on a single to center. Suddenly, the Trojans had the game tied at 3-3.
The Trojans and Bruins remained deadlocked through the next three innings, with neither team able to even get a runner in scoring position. UCLA went three-up, three-down in the bottom of the ninth to take the game into extra innings with the score still 3-3.
With both teams exhausted after a long weekend and most of the crowd at Chavez Ravine already in the parking lot, USC was in search of a big play to finish the game. Nootbaar provided just that, blasting a double to right field that sent freshman designated hitter John Thomas around to score from first. The Trojans had a 4-3 lead to protect entering the bottom of the 10th inning.
“I wasn’t really thinking much,” Nootbaar said. “I was praying to God that John Thomas could come around and score. I’m glad he did.”
After Nootbaar’s go-ahead blast, it was up to sophomore reliever Solomon Bates to save the game. He did so successfully, notching a strikeout and two straight flyouts — the last out a foul ball caught fittingly by Nootbaar, which ended the game.
Nootbaar might have taken home the game ball after the win, but freshman Chris Clarke was the Trojans’ unsung hero on Sunday, coming in to relieve sophomore starter Marrick Crouse in the fourth inning. Hurling 5.2 innings out of the bullpen, the 6-foot-7-inch Clarke gave up one hit and fanned five while giving up no runs, and thanks to USC’s 10th-inning rally, he earned his first career win. His brother Zander Clarke, a redshirt sophomore infielder for UCLA, came in to pinch hit in the 10th inning, just missing an encounter with his younger sibling on the mound.
“[Coach Hubbs] came into the dugout a few times and asked how I was feeling,” Chris Clarke said. “Every time I said, ‘Fantastic,’ because all I wanted was the ball in my hand.”
The Trojans now sit at 7-4 on the season. This week, they look forward to a road tilt against San Diego State on Tuesday before they return to Dedeaux Field for a three-game series against Holy Cross that begins on Friday.