Stock Rising

We got an e-mail recently that scouts who had been in to see early practices were raving about Southern California freshman catcher Robert Stock, the phenom who entered school early and skipped his senior year of high school. The e-mail reported that Stock was impressing in practice, flashing a 60 or 70 arm on the 20-80 scouting scale and showing 1.86-second pop times. Trojans coach Chad Kreuter, a former big league catcher himself, confirmed that Stock has adjusted very well to USC’s intense daily catching program, which includes plenty of attention to footwork, blocking and throwing.

“He has been very impressive,” Kreuter said. “His deficiency coming in here was his catching. He’d thrown so many innings last year as a pitcher, he did not get the same amount of work as a catcher. But he has just taken off with it. He’s gone from a raw-ability catcher to . . . I wouldn’t say he’s real polished yet, but from where he was in August, he’s a whole different person. Right now I think he’ll emerge as one of the premier defensive catchers, maybe this year.”

Stock has always had a great arm, which has allowed him to touch 94-95 mph off the mound with his fastball. The key was increasing his core strength and building up his legs so that his arm strength translates better behind the plate. That translation is really taking hold now, Kreuter said, but that doesn’t mean USC is abandoning Stock’s pitching career.

The Trojans have worked Stock off the mound for up to two innings in intra-squad games, and they’ve used him in back-to-back days to see how his arm responds. The plan is to be very careful with him, alternating him with senior Paul Koss and freshman Hector Rabago in a three-headed closer setup that will keep all three of them fresh.

But Stock’s primary duties will be behind the plate, as he beat out freshman Keith Castillo and senior Johnny Bowden for the starting catcher job. The Trojans will try to minimize pressure on Stock early on by batting him in the No. 7 hole in their opener against Cal Poly today at 6 p.m. PT, but Kreuter said he wouldn’t be surprised if Stock winds up in the three- or five-hole before too long.

As for Kreuter’s USC coaching debut against Cal Poly coach Larry Lee–Kreuter’s former teammate at Pepperdine–it’s clear the Trojans want to get off to a good start. Sophomore lefthander Tommy Milone, who is one of the favorites to sieze the Friday starter spot for Kreuter, will take the mound for USC against Poly righthander Steven Fischback.

“I think they’ll be hungry for a win after going 0-3 against San Diego over the weekend,” Kreuter said of the Mustangs. “They’ll be well coached and play good defense. The reports we’ve seen, they’ve got some pretty good arms on the mound, all quality arms. They didn’™t throw as many strikes over the weekend as they wanted to throw. We’re going to try to promote our hitters being very disciplined at the plate.”

With Milone, whose 98 innings a year ago were tops among Trojan returnees, pitching today, that leaves sophomore Ryan Cook as USC’s likely starter Friday against Long Beach State, with freshman Brad Boxberger ticketed for Saturday and sophomore Jake Vazquez (a transfer from Texas A&M) slated for Sunday. Kreuter said it’s an open competition for the weekend rotation between those four arms, freshman Kevin Couture and senior Shawn Olsen. Boxberger, who has been up to 94 in practice, and Vazquez, who has pitched in the 83-88 range but located well and shown a good changeup and curveball, have earned the first look through their play so far this month.

“We’re very deep at the starting pitching role, so we’re giving everybody an opportunity before we get into the league to take the hill,” Kreuter said. “By the time we get into the Pac-10, I think three of the guys will emerge.”