SEATTLE—With boating season set to kick off today, I made sure to leave extra early for yesterday’s University of Washington game against Southern California. A commute that normally takes about 20 minutes took an hour, as every car wanted to slow down and gawk at all the boats lining up in Lake Washington as they drove over the floating 520 bridge.
My foresight allowed me to still arrive in time for batting practice. Of course Huskies right fielder Kyle Conley was pulling balls over the wall, but sophomore first baseman Jacob Clem, who has been limited to just 22 at-bats this season with injuries, also looked impressive. Righthander Brian Pearl has been a position player his whole life, but has seen just one at-bat this year, as he’s primarily been the team’s closer. Still, he has a clean, line-drive stroke and the ball jumps off his bat, especially for a guy his size. He also takes balls at shortstop during batting practice.
There was a touching moment during BP when there was a group of fans cheering on Husky outfielder Jake Rife. A senior, blue-collar, grinder-type of player, Rife always has eye black smeared down his face and is hitting .331/.410/.475. The group of people cheering him on was his host family from his summer in the Jayhawk League with the Liberal BeeJays. There was a little girl, maybe five years old, with a shirt that said "Jake Rife Fan Club" and she couldn’t wait to give him a hug.
USC started to take batting practice and shortstop Grant Green was leaner than I had imagined him in my head. He’s not skinny, but he’s very athletic. His stance is a little open, but he kind of leans back, with his weight on his heels. Both elbows point straight down, with his hands over his right shoulder and the bat pointing toward the ground. He’s quick to the ball and has a compact swing that sprayed line drives all over the field, but didn’t show any power—even in BP.
A guy that did show power, and actually stole the show, was freshman first baseman Ricky Oropesa. At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Oropesa certainly doesn’t look like a freshman and he hasn’t hit like one, either. The lefthanded hitter showed of some serious power during BP, blasting several balls way out of the park.
The game got underway, with Green hitting third in the Trojan lineup. In his first at-bat, he hit a single to right field, putting runners on the corners. He was thrown out trying to seal second, getting hung up half way between the bases, but it allowed the run to score from third. Green wound up 1-for-3 with a run scored and an RBI, and handled four chances at short without an error.
In the top of the third, the Trojans got another run across and then Oropesa made it 4-0 with a two-run blast to right field. Conley didn’t even turn around—this thing was a no-doubter. It was Oropesa’s 11th home run of the season and he’s now hitting a robust .323/.404/.624.
It wasn’t Brad Boxberger’s best night. USC’s ace junior righthander, a potential late first-rounder, showed a fastball that was 88-91. He did reach back for a couple of 93s against Conley—although they weren’t strikes. He showed a slider around 82 mph and a curveball that was around 76, and occasionally mixed in an 80 mph changeup. He has a repeatable delivery, with some effort, and comes at hitters from a low three-quarter arm slot. He held his velocity late in the game, but struggled with his control and didn’t show a pitch that will put hitters away at the next level. He ended up going 6.2 innings while giving up seven runs (four earned) on 11 hits with seven walks and six strikeouts.
The game was back-and-forth. The Huskies scored three of their own in the bottom of the third, but USC answered with two more in the top of the fourth. UW scored two more in the bottom of the sixth, bringing the score to 6-5, USC. The Trojans got an insurance run in the top of the seventh, but UW answered with two of their own in the bottom half of the inning, tying the game at seven runs apiece.
In the top of the eighth, the Trojans’ No. 8 hitter, Joe De Pinto, hit a line-drive solo home run off of freshman righthander Andrew Kittredge to put them on top once again, 8-7.
With one out in the bottom of the eighth inning, USC head coach Chad Kreuter decided to move Robert Stock from catcher to pitcher. Stock entered the game with a runner on second. He struck out Rife and then intentionally walked Conley to set up a play at any base with two outs. That plan was quickly foiled however, when one of the next pitches went to the backstop, allowing both UW runners to move up a base. Troy Scott was hit by a pitch, loading the bases for the Huskies, down by a run with two outs. Second baseman Pierce Rankin was up and singled to center field, brining in the tying and go-ahead runs. Stock hit another batter before getting third baseman Julien Pollard to strike out to end the inning.
Stock’s fastball was sitting 91-93 and his breaking ball was anywhere from 71-79 with sharp, downward movement. Stock, who has moved into the weekend rotation of late, has boosted his draft stock and is now considered a better prospect on the mound than as a catcher, due to his below-average bat more than to his above-average catch-and-throw skills. But his problem was that he was flying way open, landing with his foot pointed toward the lefthanded batters box. So it was no surprise that both batters he hit were lefties and the wild pitch was way inside to a lefty.
Pearl was looking good in the bullpen and was warm, but with two lefties and a switch-hitter due up, Knutson went with lefthander Geoff Brown, who sent the Trojans down in order. Brown used an 88-91 mph fastball and a 74 mph slider that can start at a lefthander’s shoulder and ends up at their knees for a called strike. He struck out Oropesa, got center fielder Anthony Vasquez to roll over to second base and then pinch-hitter Garret Houts hit a soft fly ball that sophomore shortstop David Bentrott made an excellent diving catch with his back to home plate to end the game.
The Trojans’ loss dropped them to 22-21, 10-9 in the Pac-10. USC is living dangerously—again—with regard to a regional berth, and is just a half-game up on the Huskies (19-23, 8-8) for fifth place in the lackluster Pac-10.