After losing 8-7 to UC Irvine on Tuesday night, the 11-6 Trojans head up to Northern California for a three-game series against Stanford. The Cardinal is ranked third in the country and the second best team in the Pac-12 behind Oregon State — the number one team in the country. The Trojans have shown signs of being the caliber of team that could compete with a squad at Stanford’s level; the next step is for the team to play its best ball consistently.
Take the loss to UCI, for example. Just five days after the pitching staff combined to no-hit Utah, the Trojans allowed 8 runs to the Anteaters, 6 of which were earned. Irvine may have come up with timely hits, such as senior infielder Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 2-run homer in the bottom of the seventh inning, but many of the Anteaters’ runs came on Trojan mistakes.
UCI’s first run came when a runner was pushed in on a hit by pitch with the bases loaded, and an extra run scored later in the first inning on a fielding error by junior center fielder Lars Nootbaar. Finally, UCI scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch third strike in the bottom of the eighth. These are the types of mishaps that lose winnable games, and they can’t continue if USC is to have a chance against Stanford.
Stanford’s strength is in its pitching staff. The Cardinal tops in the conference in batting average against, allowing teams to hit just .201 against them. Moreover, the Cardinal is second in the Pac-12 with a 2.33 earned run average. The most runs the team has given up in a game this season were 8 against Texas on March 8, one of just two losses this year for Stanford. This is a tough matchup for a Trojan lineup that has been inconsistent at best in 2018.
Their success is a group effort on the part of the whole pitching staff, but the standout is sophomore closer Jack Little. Having pitched 14 innings in seven games, Little has racked up six saves and 15 strikeouts, allowing just a .091 batting average against. The Trojans cannot afford to enter the later innings needing a rally because Little will shut them down.
The starters are more vulnerable, as evidenced by the lack of a single complete game performance. USC will need to score their runs early in order to have the best shot at winning the series.
Aside from pitching, Stanford isn’t very impressive in any other areas of the game. They rank in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in batting average (.250) and on base percentage (.346). Their slugging percentage (.386) is slightly better, but can’t be considered a strength. They don’t hit many home runs or extra base hits, and aren’t adept at drawing walks or stealing bases. This team really gets by on its pitching, so it’s a bad sign if the Trojans give up a lot of runs to Stanford.
USC’s biggest advantage in this series is in the field. The Trojans are one of the most capable defensive teams in the country, boasting a Division I-best .990 fielding percentage. Stanford, meanwhile, sits in the middle of the pack in the Pac-12 with a .973 fielding percentage. The Cardinal doesn’t commit too many errors, but one bobbled grounder or errant throw could make the difference in what is sure to be a low-scoring series.
There’s no way of knowing yet if Stanford is as good as their record indicates. This series marks the start of Pac-12 play for the Cardinal, and while they have played two Power-5 schools in Texas and Michigan, they have yet to play a team in the national top 25. They emerged from both of those series with convincing wins, but they did account for both of Stanford’s losses this season.
USC, on the other hand, has cut its teeth against some of the nation’s best competition. They managed a 3-2 victory over No. 17 UCLA on March 11, just a week after coming within two runs of a series victory over No. 4 Arkansas. If the track record is any indication, the Trojans won’t be afraid to take it to Stanford. They’re definite underdogs, but don’t be surprised if USC surprises the college baseball world this weekend.