2005 Season Outlook
Jan. 20, 2005
Chemistry is a concept that most athletic teams try to attain in order to become successful. For the 2005 USC baseball team, chemistry is the basis for the Trojans' efforts in getting back to the postseason after two straight years of failing to reach the NCAA Tournament.
Optimism abounds as the Trojans return six position players and 11 pitchers from last year's squad. USC returns two of the top players in the nation in junior catcher Jeff Clement (.293, 10 home runs, 43 RBI) and sophomore pitcher Ian Kennedy (7-2 record, 2.91 ERA, 92 2/3 IP, 120 SO). Both Clement and Kennedy are 2005 preseason All-Americans after playing last summer for the U.S. National Team.
Head coach Mike Gillespie, who is entering his 19th season for the Trojans, understands how players like Clement and Kennedy can help set the example for the team.
'The makeup and chemistry is good and we have good guys on the team,' said Gillespie. 'We have not had any issues on or off the field and have been solid in the classroom. We seem to have a group of guys who have their priorities in order.'
After hitting 21 home runs in his freshman season, Clement will be the focus of many scouts this season as he is slated for a possible first-round selection in June's major league baseball draft.
'He is a special player and on the short list of the best players ever at USC,' said Gillespie. 'This year, he is a more complete and selective hitter. He has continued to make strides on his ability to use the whole field in his hitting approach and has improved behind the plate. There is no reason to believe that he will not be a major league catcher.'
A pleasant surprise for the Trojans last year was the development of junior third baseman Billy Hart. Hart, who is also a member of the football team as a reserve quarterback, led the Trojans last year in batting average (.367-2-29).
'Billy has become a more complete player,' said Gillespie. 'He is a better hitter and that does not mean he has to hit the same as he did last year in order to be better. He has better mechanics and hits with power. Billy is both athletic and smart, which is one of the reasons that he is able to succeed as a two-sport athlete.'
Three players will battle for the two middle infield positions. Returners Blake Sharpe (.316-2-28) and Hector Estrella (.216-0-6) have competed against freshman Matt Cusick (Mission Viejo/Santa Margarita HS) with great results. As of press time, the starters had not been set, but Cusick will definitely be a starter and could see action at either position.
Freshman Lucas Duda (Riverside/Arlington HS) will start for the Trojans at first base. Duda earned CIF Division I Player of the Year honors last year not only for his hitting ability, but his efforts as the team's closer. Although he will primarily be at first, Duda may also see some time on the mound.
'Lucas is one of those guys that has potential written all over him,' said Gillespie. 'He is a 6-5 guy, who is lean and strong with bat speed and power. He is a freshman and needs time to make the transition. It remains to be seen how soon he can do that.'
A veteran outfield returns for the Trojans. Junior Baron Frost (.303-4-32) has the most experience after starting for most of the season in left field. Frost, who also serves as a backup catcher for Clement, led the Trojans last year with 20 doubles. Sophomore Daniel Perales (.286-2-34) started every game last year and begins the 2005 season as the team's starting center fielder. Perales earned all-league honors in the Cape Cod Baseball League last summer after batting .296 for Falmouth. Cyle Hankerd (.333-1-29) finished second on the team in batting after playing in 50 games.
Junior transfer Zack Kalter (Phillips Ranch/Western Christian HS/Pasadena CC) will play a dual role for the Trojans. Kalter will have a chance to start in right field and could break into the starting pitching rotation. Kalter was named as the top pro prospect in the New England Collegiate League last summer after batting .353 with five home runs, 21 RBI and 15 stolen bases. He also went 1-1 with a 1.47 ERA (43 IP, 35 H, 7 ER, 12 BB, 34 SO).
Junior utility Darin Vieira, who can play any position on the field, is a capable defensive replacement. Redshirt sophomore Ryan Broderick has battled hip injuries over the past two years and has healed up to provide some depth. Freshman Roberto Lopez (La Mesa/Rancho Bernardo HS) will also be in the mix.
Injuries have decimated USC's pitching over the past few seasons. This season, the Trojans have remained healthy through the fall and depth will be the strength of the staff.
'In the past, we have relied on four or five guys in the past to throw in the important innings, but this year, we have the potential for about six to 10 guys to pitch important innings for us,' said USC pitching coach and recruiting coordinator Dave Lawn. 'It has a trickle down effect because you aren't extending your starters.'
Kennedy anchors an experienced rotation and is quietly gaining recognition as one of the top collegiate pitchers in the nation.
'Anyone that saw him pitch against Long Beach State in his first career start last year knows all about his poise,' said Lawn. 'He is the ultimate competitor. He will go out and pitch with whatever he has on that day and put your team in a position to win the game, late in the ballgame.'
Kennedy and Kalter will get some help from redshirt junior Brett Bannister. Bannister, who has fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, would give the Trojans another experienced starter despite missing the past two seasons.
'Brett is a little ahead of where most guys going through that kind of surgery are at and has possessed good command in his early stints this year,' said Lawn.
Junior transfer Jack Spradlin (Bonita/Eastlake HS/Southwestern College) will add depth to the starting rotation after earning JC All-America honors last season. Spradlin went 7-1 last year and led the state with a 0.58 ERA, allowing just six earned runs.
Many players will have an opportunity to contribute to the bullpen, including Jon Williams (0-3, 7.65 ERA, 37 2/3 IP) and Michael Friedman (2-2, 4.17, three saves, 36 2/3 IP). Williams is healthy after battling arm and groin injuries the last couple of years while Friedman did not allow a run in his first 12 appearances last season. Paul Koss (0-2, 10.61 ERA) is vastly improved over the summer from his freshman season and might be the surprise of the staff this season.
Freshmen Nate Smith (Clovis/Clovis HS), Anthony Encinas (Norwalk/Santa Fe HS) and Todd Macklin (Newport Beach/Corona del Mar HS) will also be counted on for innings. Encinas and Macklin had to battle health issues last spring, but both players have looked good during practice.
'Anthony so far hasn't had any problems,' said Lawn. 'The rehab process ate up most of his fall and he is still feeling his way. Macklin has had no hiccups since he started school. Both have great arms, but just need to get used to pitching at the Division I level.'
This season, USC faces another daunting schedule with 35 of its 56 games played against opponents that competed in last year's NCAA Tournament. Along with the difficult Pac-10 Conference schedule, the Trojans will play a three-game nonconference series against Long Beach State and defending national champion Cal State Fullerton. Three tournaments are on the slate in March: the College Classic Tournament in Round Rock, Texas (Texas A&M, Rice and Nebraska), the USC/Public Storage Baseball Classic held at Dedeaux Field (Texas Tech, UC Irvine and Wichita State) and the OCYSF-UC Irvine Tournament (Nevada, Stony Brook and UC Irvine).
If the Trojans can handle the non-conference schedule, the team will be well seasoned heading into Pac-10 play and able to make a run for the postseason.
'We think we are better in every regard,' said Gillespie. 'We do have more depth in terms of our position players and pitching. It's our belief that it will be a good team that does compete with our schedule. With so many newcomers, especially pitching, we are being cautious until we see it. We need some of the new pitchers to contribute now. We are excited about the ability and believe we have a chance to be good.'