Operation:Omaha Mission Begins For 2001 Baseball Season
Jan. 17, 2001
There should be an all points bulletin out for the 2001 USC baseball team. The Trojans are armed and dangerous.
USC enters the 2001 season as the consensus No. 2 ranked team in the nation, according to preseason polls.
The Trojans are coming off another successful season in 2000 with a 44-20 overall record, a 16-8 record in Pac-10 Conference play and their 20th appearance in the College World Series. All three pitchers from the starting rotation and seven starting position players return in 2001 for the Trojans. As dominant as the pitching looks for USC, the offensive side may look a little different.
Pitching will be the strength for Troy this season. The rotation will include senior Rik Currier (15-3 record, 3.31 ERA, 125 IP, 141 SO), the 2000 Pac-10 Conference Co-Pitcher of the Year, and two pitchers who were a part of the 2000 USA National team in junior Mark Prior (10-7 record, 3.56 ERA, 136 1/3 IP, 150 SO) and sophomore Anthony Reyes (6-6 record, 4.02 ERA, 96 1/3 IP, 86 SO).
Currier, who became the Trojans' No. 1 starter midway through last season, won 10 of his last 11 starts, earning him All-America second team honors by Collegiate Baseball and The Sporting News. This season, Currier was named as a preseason All-American by Collegiate Baseball. He also moved into third place on USC's career strikeout list with 329 and needs only 92 this year to surpass the top mark, held by Seth Etherton (Cincinnati Reds).
'Rik is a bona fide, legitimate All-American pitcher,' said Head Coach Mike Gillespie. 'He should be one of the top pitchers in the nation this season.'
This season will be a pivotal one for Prior. Drafted out of high school as a first-round pick by the New York Yankees, Prior has already been projected this season as a probable top 10 draft pick and could even be taken in the first five spots. He is a 2001 preseason Baseball America All-America first team pick and a Collegiate Baseball All-America second teamer.
'We are fortunate in that Mark has been around players who have been drafted high and those who have not,' said Gillespie. 'He has been an observer of the whole draft process. He knows that while he is on the short list of guys who can be picked high, it's about performance. I don't think there will be a concern with his attitude.'
Reyes had his coming-out party at the 2000 College World Series when he struck out 10 batters in his debut against Florida State in 7 1/3 innings, allowing only two runs on three hits. He should continue his rapid growth behind two solid veterans as the No. 3 starter in the rotation.
'We expect these three pitchers to give us one through three depth as good as there is in the country,' said Gillespie. 'They are experienced and have performed at a level where you have reason to expect that they would be very good.'
USC's bullpen took a hit when Ronald Flores (6-2 record, 3.32 ERA, 85 2/3 IP, 70 SO) signed a professional contract with the Oakland Athletics (29th round pick in the 2000 draft).
Despite the loss, the Trojans return a couple of veterans and add a couple of newcomers who can make up the difference. Sophomore Chad Clark pitched in only 16 1/3 innings last year (1-0, 9.72), but then pitched well for the Cape Cod Baseball League champion Brewster Whitecaps this summer with a 3-1 record and 3.15 ERA in seven starts. Clark will likely get the nod as the Trojans' midweek starter.
'Chad is now showing the maturity of a returning player,' said Gillespie.
At the 2000 CWS, sophomore Brian Bannister became part of only the second father-son combo to pitch in Omaha (his father, Floyd, was a standout at Arizona State and pitched 15 years in the major leagues). Bannister (0-0, 4.15, 10 1/3 IP) also had a strong summer, adding some velocity to his fastball. He could also be the midweek starter or might assume the role as the team's closer.
'Brian has been a pleasant surprise and has really improved,' said Gillespie. 'He is bigger and stronger and is throwing harder and into the 90 mph range with an untouchable breaking ball. He simply needs experience to be a legitimate and devastating college closer.'
The Trojans add two left-handed newcomers in freshman Fraser Dizard (Edmonds, Washington/Meadowdale HS) and sophomore transfer Jordan Olson (La Crescenta/L.A. City College).
'Fraser is a very exciting talent,' said Gillespie. 'His stuff is legitimate. It's a matter of if he can progress enough that you can be comfortable putting him into a tough spot against a tough opponent. Jordan has poise and maturity. He is someone who should help us considerably as well.'
'That group of seven pitchers should give us the kind of depth that will enable us to compete this season.'
The main question for the 2001 Trojans will be how to survive a possible power outage. USC lost junior third baseman Justin Gemoll (.374, 18 HR, 67 RBI) and sophomore catcher Beau Craig (.287, 18 HR, 62 RBI) to the draft and will be hard pressed to replace both bats in the lineup.
USC return four starters in the infield, with the anchor being senior shortstop Seth Davidson (.305, 4 HR, 34 RBI). Davidson led the team last spring with 26 stolen bases after a slow start, but played a role in the post-season. He went 10-for-14 (.714) with a home run and six RBI to earn Most Outstanding Player honors at the NCAA First-Round Regional at Cal State Fullerton. The key for Davidson, however, is his strong defense.
'We are lucky to have him back,' said Gillespie. 'We should get the best year from him since he has been here. He had a difficult start last year, but he did resurrect himself during an important stretch at the end of the year. He is playing well and motivated. He will continue to be spectacular on defense and is a very money player. His importance to this team can not be overstated.'
Sophomore second baseman Anthony Lunetta (.343-12-50) returns after earning Pac-10 Conference Freshman/Newcomer of the Year honors last year.
The two qualities that impressed many were Lunetta's quick hands and power. He is being groomed to take over for Davidson next year at shortstop, but teamed with Davidson, he gives USC a potent double-play combination. Lunetta was second on the team in batting average and led Troy with 22 doubles. His ability to hit in clutch situations showed, as he hit two home runs at No. 1 Georgia Tech at the NCAA Super Regional and another home run in the Trojans' 6-4 victory over Florida State at the College World Series.
'He has a great arm and possesses a demeanor about him that exudes confidence,' said Gillespie.
The Trojans will have flexibility at the first base position. Senior Josh Persell (.351-9-40) had his best season at the plate last year and has worked hard to improve his defensive skills. Persell hit .282 for the Cape Cod League champion Brewster Whitecaps over the summer and will get the slight nod as the starter, but can also serve as a designated hitter.
'Josh is clearly a starter for us,' said Gillespie. 'It just depends if it is at first base or as a designated hitter. He has been one of the pleasant surprises for us.'
Senior Bill Peavey (.248-4-28) saw spot duty at first last year, but with an improved swing can give additional power to the Trojans' lineup.
The one variable for USC at first base could be the spring arrival of transfer Nick Priest from Grossmont (Calif.) College. Priest, a sophomore, hits from the right side of the plate with power and may also be used as the designated hitter this season.
Sophomore Alberto Concepcion (.299-8-22) moves to catcher, but also can play at first for the Trojans. The catcher position is the one concern for Gillespie and his coaching staff.
'The development of Alberto at catcher is one of our biggest issues,' said Gillespie. 'The overall depth at that position is also part of the issue. It's thin in terms of the quality of the player that can play that position.'
Two freshmen, Michael Moon (Alta Loma/Rancho Cucamonga HS) and Jonathon Brewster (Sherman Oaks/Notre Dame HS), both have an opportunity to break into the lineup. Moon most likely will start at third while Brewster can play any number of positions, either in the infield or the outfield.
'Michael is a left handed hitting freshman who runs well,' said Gillespie. 'He is a different kind of player than Justin Gemoll, but there is no doubt in my mind that before he is through here, he will be a great player. Jonathon has never played first base but is very athletic and is a guy who has surprised us this fall with how well he can swing the bat.'
The Trojans return all three starting outfielders from last year's CWS squad. Juniors Brian Barre (.274-5-18) and Rob Garibaldi (.329-8-44) played most of the season for the Trojans while the surprise starter was Abel Montanez (.327-1-10), who did not become a starter until April 25.
Garibaldi was a quiet surprise in his first year at the Division I level. As the starting right fielder, he was strong with the glove and showed consistent power at the plate with 18 doubles to go along with his eight home runs. He also was named to the All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention list.
Barre provides steady defense in center with good range and speed. He was used last year as a leadoff hitter and was second on the team with 12 stolen bases. Barre earned NCAA First-Round Regional All-Tournament team honors after going 7-for-12 (.583) with a double, triple and two stolen bases.
Montanez was a pleasant surprise last season. After he was inserted into the starting lineup in late April, the Trojans went 16-3 for the remainder of the season. He was a spark plug for the team and was named to the NCAA First-Round Regional All-Tournament team after going 7-for-10 (.700) with his first career home run and two RBI.
'We have never played the game any differently from one year to the next, regardless of who are personnel has been,' said Gillespie. 'We don't have anyone who will give us 18 home runs like Gemoll or Craig, but our overall home run numbers should not be dramatically different. I think this is a team that will run reasonably well. We don't have a flat-out burner, but our overall team speed should be good.'
The one change in the team's coaching staff is the addition of pitching coach Dave Lawn. Lawn, who served as an assistant at California the last 10 years, replaces John Savage, who took over the head coaching position at UC Irvine.
'Dave and John, who are close personal friends, are both well-schooled guys,' said Gillespie. 'I think Dave has a great depth of knowledge of the pitching position in terms of the mechanics and preparation. He is very thorough and attentive to detail. He also has a sense of humor and his quick wit should serve well in terms of daily chemistry.'
The 2001 schedule will once again be a competitive one as the Trojans have six teams in the pre-season top 25 on the slate. USC will not leave the area in the month of February as the first 16 games will be played either at the friendly confines of Dedeaux Field or at local opponents such as No. 18 Pepperdine, No. 22 Long Beach State and UCLA (three non-conference games).
March will be the reverse as the Trojans will make four consecutive weekend road trips with stops at Houston, No. 14 Stanford (non-conference), Washington and Arizona. The Trojans will have the luxury of hosting No. 6 Arizona State, Stanford and UCLA in Pac-10 series before closing out the season with a home series against Washington State and a road series at Oregon State.
The 2001 version of the USC Trojans baseball team will be a mix of strong pitching, solid defense, consistent hitting and above average team speed. If the Trojans can generate some power, another run for Omaha and the school's 13th national championship may not be out of the question.