USC Wins Thriller At Dodger Stadium
USC Wins Thriller At Dodger Stadium
The Dodger Stadium Classic again lived up to its name Sunday.
The tournament brought Texas Christian and Vanderbilt to Los Angeles to play Southern California and UCLA in on-campus games Friday and Saturday, before moving to Dodger Stadium for a Sunday doubleheader featuring the crosstown rivals in the nightcap.
Rain washed out Saturday’s games, but cleared out in time for the main event. Vanderbilt finished an impressive 2-0 weekend with a 7-4 victory against TCU to finish up an 11-day road trip, during which coach Tim Corbin said his young team grew up as much as it could. The day’s main event was the nightcap, and USC and UCLA played a taut, exciting game in front of a crowd of 9,346 fans at one of baseball’s iconic stadiums.
USC claimed a big victory when outfielder Lars Nootbaar hit a go-ahead solo home run in the eighth inning to give the Trojans their first lead of the day. UCLA threatened in the ninth inning, getting the tying run to third base, but righthander Connor Lunn shut the door and USC won, 3-2.
It was an important win for a young Trojans team. USC (9-4) nearly won a series last weekend at Arkansas but gave up a late lead in the rubber game. It took a tough loss Friday against TCU, falling 10-0 at home. But on the big stage of Dodger Stadium, the Trojans were able to find a way to beat the Bruins (10-4), a win that should give them some momentum next weekend going into the start of Pac-12 Conference play.
“I think this is a great win for us,” coach Dan Hubbs said. “We played really poorly on Friday overall, coming off of a good week last week when we were at Arkansas. I thought this was a great way to bounce back against an extremely good UCLA team.”
USC’s win against UCLA had some similarities to its loss at Arkansas exactly a week before. In both games, the Trojans took a late one-run lead and turned the ball over to closer Connor Lunn. The Razorbacks were able to get to Lunn, scoring two runs in the eighth inning to walk off with a victory in a game that was shortened due to travel curfew.
But against UCLA, Lunn slammed the door. He came on to get the final out of the eighth inning and stranded two runners. He got two quick outs in the ninth before back-to-back singles put runners on the corners for Bruins’ cleanup hitter Chase Strumpf. Lunn came back with a strikeout to end the game and improve to 1-1, 2.45 with five saves.
“Connor did a nice job of bouncing back from a loss on Sunday,” Hubbs said. “He didn’t waver. I’m really proud of him and how he bounced back. I think that’s really what it came down to, and the other thing is these kids never stopped picking each other up.”
Nootbaar was one of the players to pick up his teammates Sunday. After USC tied the game in the seventh, it got a runner to third base with one out. Hubbs called for a squeeze three times – two safety squeezes and a suicide squeeze – with Chase Bushor at the plate, but the junior was unable to get the bunt down. An inning later, Nootbaar drove a hanging slider over the right field seats for the game-winner.
Nootbaar has scuffled in the early going this season and is now hitting .214/.441/.405. He has draw 17 walks against just five strikeouts, but the Trojans need more offensive production from him. And on Sunday he delivered when they needed it the most
“I’ve been struggling up to this point, it’s no secret,” Nootbaar said. “But to be able to see a ball well and hit it well and put us in the lead, it’s good.”
USC is aiming for its first regionals berth since 2015 and has amassed a solid start to the season with series wins against Utah Valley and Villanova to start the year, to go with its wins against Arkansas, Long Beach State, Loyola Marymount and UCLA. USC begins Pac-12 play at home against Washington State before traveling to No. 3 Stanford for what will be its biggest test yet.
The Trojans know they still have a lot of work to do this season, but Sunday’s victory was a reminder of what is possible when they put everything together.
“We have to play well to win,” Hubbs said. “We’re not going to just roll out the bats and balls and just outmuscle people. So, we have to play well. The biggest thing this win does is it’s an RPI win in a neutral site.
“I think it’s a great way to end the week and build on that to have a great week next week.”
Louisville Makes Statement To Open ACC Play
As Louisville’s program has matured, it has grown to a point where reloading is the expectation. Even after the Cardinals had six players drafted – and signed – in the top 100 picks in 2016, they didn’t miss a beat in 2017, when they won the Atlantic Coast Conference and advanced to the College World Series.
But Louisville entered 2018 with more uncertainty. It had lost five players drafted in the top six rounds, including College Player of the Year Brendan McKay, one of the best college players of all time. It was clear the Cardinals were talented, but they were going to again need new players to step up to fill the gaps.
Louisville started the season well and was 12-0 entering the weekend and the start of ACC play. But because the Cardinals had played just one game against a team that made the 2017 NCAA Tournament, it was still difficult to know what to make of them.
Louisville did its best to answer the lingering questions this weekend. It won the first two games of its series against then-No. 13 North Carolina to improve to 14-0 and become the last undefeated team in the country. The Cardinals (14-1) couldn’t hold a late lead in the series finale, but still came away from the first weekend of conference play with a big series win and moved up to No. 12 in the Top 25. Along the way, they sent a message that their new core is ready for the spotlight.
“We’ve come from behind a couple times and we don’t seem to panic,” coach Dan McDonnell said. “They’ve got a good demeanor about them. They’ve been consistent. I look at our one loss and we have a one-run lead going into the seventh. We’re nine outs away at home from getting this thing (Sunday). Credit to North Carolina, they put together a really good inning. Overall, I’m pleased with my group.”
Louisville is beginning its fourth season as a member of the ACC, but it has already established itself as a member of the conference’s elite. It improved this weekend to 72-16 in ACC play since joining the conference and is now 27-4 in ACC series.
After producing top-10 picks in back-to-back years, the Cardinals are unlikely to make it three in a row, but again have several well-regarded prospects in the draft, including closer Sam Bordner (1-0, 0.00, 6 SV) second baseman Devin Mann (.340/.500/.580), center fielder Josh Stowers (.259/.400/.362, 8 SB) and righthander Riley Thompson (1-1, 4.43).
The core of this year’s team, however, is the sophomore class. Louisville’s lineup typically includes six sophomores and a few more fill key roles on the pitching staff. It was largely an unheralded group coming out of high school – shortstop Tyler Fitzgerald was the lone player ranked on the 2016 BA 500 – but it has blossomed over the last two years.
McDonnell was careful to give that group playing time last year in anticipation that they would step into larger roles this spring, but only Fitzgerald and lefthander Nick Bennett saw regular playing time as freshmen. This weekend was the first time the class was asked to step up as a whole in an ACC series and they did just that.
“For a lot of sophomore position players, they all gave us good weekends,” McDonnell said. “It was good to see all the sophomores in their first real ACC test where they’re starting and they competed.”
Louisville’s sophomore class is expected to get even stronger over the next few weeks. Bennett, a 2017 Freshman All-American, has been limited to just two innings so far this season and hasn’t pitched since Opening Weekend as he recovers from a shoulder injury. McDonnell expects him to return this week, probably during one of Louisville’s two midweek games against No. 8 Texas Tech. Righthander Michael McAvene, who opened last season in the rotation, is also expected to return soon as he continues to progress in his recovery from Tommy John surgery.
If the Cardinals add those two pitchers into a staff that has already this season proved itself to be a solid group, they will be ready to challenge for their third ACC title in four years. But Louisville won’t get a chance to catch its breathe. After its midweek set with Texas Tech, it travels next weekend to Wake Forest, which just upset conference favorite Florida State. Series against No. 5 Clemson, No. 6 Florida State and No. 23 North Carolina follow.
Louisville’s young team will continue to be tested over the next month. For now, however, the baby Cardinals are flying high.
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Eight for Omaha
There are again no changes this week to the field. Florida State and Texas Tech both lost series, but I don’t see a big cause for concern for either team. Texas Tech ran into a red-hot Kentucky on the road, while Florida State had a tough doubleheader sweep Saturday at Wake Forest. Both have lost this season their All-American lefthander, but I still think both teams have enough pitching depth to succeed this season. Meanwhile, Clemson and Texas A&M continue to impress. Either one or both teams could soon break into the mix.
Five players or programs who stood out this weekend.
Hofstra: A week after righthander Seamus Brazill threw what was believed to be the first no-hitter in program history, lefthander John Rooney and Brazill combined for another no-hitter Saturday in an 11-0 victory against Mount St. Mary’s. The Pride are off to an 8-2 start this season and have won eight games in a row, tied for the third-longest winning streak in the country.
Kansas: The Jayhawks (11-4) swept then-No. 22 St. John’s, their first sweep of a ranked opponent since 2014. Kansas has now swept back-to-back weekend series, something else it hadn’t accomplished since 2014. The Jayhawks on Friday became the first team to ever beat St. John’s sophomore righthander Sean Mooney, the 2017 Big East Conference pitcher of the year, in the regular season.
Casey Mize, RHP, Auburn: The junior righthander threw a no-hitter in a 6-0 victory against Northeastern. Mize, a candidate to be the top pick in the draft, struck out 13 batters and walked none. Mize improved to 4-0, 2.13 with 38 strikeouts and three walks in 25.1 innings this spring.
Drew Mount, OF, Kansas State: Mount hit grand slams in back-to-back innings in a 12-3 victory Friday against Mercer, becoming the first Wildcat to hit two grand slams in a game since 2994. The junior went 2-for-4 on the day and is now hitting .315/.449/.870 with seven home runs.
Riley Ornido, RHP, San Francisco: In the first game of a doubleheader sweep against Xavier, Ornido struck out 15 batters in 8.2 innings. The sophomore improved this season to 3-0, 1.11 with 29 strikeouts in 24.1 innings.
Three weekend series we’re most excited for
No. 4 Kentucky at No. 7 Arkansas: Opening weekend of Southeastern Conference play features a top-10 showdown. Kentucky (14-3) will come in with a full head of steam, having swept through the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic and then won a series against Texas Tech. Arkansas (11-4) has had to work for series wins against Southern California and Kent State, both solid teams, but will need to be on top of its game this weekend.
No. 10. Texas A&M at No. 13 Auburn: The Aggies (16-1) and Tigers (15-1) have two of the best records in the country and have played like SEC title contenders to this point. But the competition level for both teams will ratchet up this weekend with the start of conference play. Auburn’s strong pitching staff will be faced with Texas A&M’s powerful offense and whoever gets the upper hand in that matchup will likely take the series.
No. 23 North Carolina State at No. 5 Clemson: The Wolfpack (13-3) have a gaudy record but have faced a light schedule and left Doak Field for just one game. Clemson (15-1) will present North Carolina State with by far its most difficult challenge to date. The Tigers are riding a seven-game winning streak and are establishing themselves as the team to beat in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Two weekend series you shouldn’t overlook
Connecticut vs. St. John’s: The two best teams in the Northeast will play a travelling series with the first two games in Queens, N.Y., and the finale in Storrs, Conn. For both teams it will be the first weekend they stay in the Northeast, and both will be eager to get home following tough road trips. St. John’s (8-4) was swept at Kansas, dropping it out of the Top 25 for the first time this season, while UConn (6-6) has four of its last five at North Florida and Citadel.
Grand Canyon at Cal State Fullerton: The Antelopes and Titans both entered the season with regional expectations, but both have struggled in the first few weeks. Grand Canyon (6-8) got back on track with a sweep of Penn State over the weekend, while Fullerton (4-9) pushed No. 2 Oregon State to the brink in Corvallis. Both teams could use a series win with conference play fast approaching.
One midweek game to keep an eye on
No. 6 Florida State at No. 2 Florida, Tuesday, 6 p.m. ET: One of college baseball’s premier rivalries returns this week. The Gators (12-3) have won five straight games against the Seminoles (14-2) and 10 of the last 11 meetings. They’ll have home field advantage on Tuesday as they look to extend those streaks.