2006 Season Outlook
Jan. 22, 2006
It was a mild Monday afternoon in Corvallis, Ore., last June when the USC baseball team witnessed Oregon State's celebration at the NCAA Super Regional. The Trojans had battled with the Beavers, pushing the host team to a deciding game three and putting USC one game away from a trip to Omaha and the College World Series.
For the 2006 season, the Trojans will use that experience for a chance to get over the hump and make their first CWS berth since 2001.
Head coach Mike Gillespie and his coaching staff have good reason to be confident about the Trojans' chances, despite the loss of some key players. Jeff Clement, who won the 2005 Johnny Bench Award as the nation's top catcher, was the third overall pick in the draft by the Seattle Mariners. Four other former Trojans signed pro contracts, including starting third baseman Billy Hart and starting pitcher Jack Spradlin.
A total of 20 letterwinners return for the Trojans this season, including two key pitchers and seven starting position players from last year's squad that went 41-22, including a third-place tie in Pac-10 Conference play. Almost half of this year's squad are veterans with three seniors and 16 juniors comprising an experienced group.
All eyes will be on right-hander and first team All-American Ian Kennedy (12-3, 2.54 ERA), who is projected as a first-round selection in the 2006 draft. Kennedy was named Pac-10 Conference Pitcher of the Year after leading the nation with 158 strikeouts. He also made his second straight appearance with the U.S. National Team.
Closer Paul Koss flourished in his sophomore season, going 4-1 with a 2.81 ERA and 14 saves, the fifth-highest single season total in USC history.
USC lost freshman starter Anthony Encinas (7-4, 4.68) with an elbow injury for the season, but the Trojans do return Steve Martlaro (0-0, 2.25 in 12 innings), Nate Smith (0-0, 5.14, 21 innings), Josh Fogel (1-0, 5.71, 17 1/3 innings) and Andy Guy (1-0, 6.75, 16 innings).
Three newcomers will follow Kennedy's lead in the starting rotation. Right-hander Shawn Olsen (Orem, Utah/Timpanogas HS/College of Southern Nevada) was listed by Baseball America as one of the nation's top junior college players. Olsen, who can also play in the outfield, will probably be a lock at the No. 2 starter's spot. Two freshmen will battle for the other two spots: right-hander Ryan Cook (Clovis/Clovis HS) and left-hander Tommy Milone (Saugus/Saugus HS).
Offense should not be a problem this season for the Trojans, even with the loss of Clement and Hart. Matt Cusick had an outstanding freshman season (.311, 4 HR, 35 RBI) and will move to third base after spending time at first and second base in 2005. Shortstop Blake Sharpe (.297-5-36) and second baseman Hector Estrella (.271-3-28) solidify the middle of the Trojans' infield while first baseman Lucas Duda (.208-1-11) returns after missing a month with a wrist injury last season. Freshmen Michael Torres (Santa Ana/Mater Dei HS) and Steven Rodriguez (Laguna Niguel/Capistrano Valley HS) will add some depth to the infield.
The team's power numbers should come from the outfield. Junior Cyle Hankerd (.298-1-39) exploded over the summer after earning New England Collegiate Baseball League most valuable player honors with a .383 average and nine home runs in 115 at-bats. Senior Baron Frost (.274-4-30) finished second in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League with a .343 average. Roberto Lopez (.264-1-21) earned valuable experience after junior Daniel Perales (.266-1-9) spent most of the 2005 season off the field after a back injury. A healthy Perales gives the Trojans another solid bat in the lineup, as well as a solid defensive outfielder. Senior Darin Vieira (.241-5-32) can play virtually anywhere on the field while sophomore Spencer Pabst (.250-0-0, 3 stolen bases) can be used as a pinch runner.
At the catching position, USC will have several options, including using Fogel from the bullpen if needed. Junior transfer J.J. Owen (Santa Ana/Mater Dei HS/Cal Poly) hit six home runs in 97 at-bats for the Mustangs and the team added junior transfer Johnny Bowden (Springfield, Ore./Chandler-Gilbert CC) at the break.
The philosophy for the USC baseball program has always been to possess a competitive schedule and this season will be no different. USC opens the 2006 season with its traditional series with Long Beach State, followed by a home series with Florida International and the USC/Public Storage Baseball Classic with Kansas, San Diego and Vanderbilt. The Trojans end February with their first trip to Hawaii since 1997.
In March, the Trojans will have a 10-game homestand, featuring the first-ever appearance at Dedeaux Field by SEC power Georgia, as well as Stanford and Oregon State. The series with the Beavers opens Pac-10 Conference play with USC also hosting Cal, Washington and Arizona and traveling to Stanford, Arizona State, Washington State and UCLA. In late May, the Trojans will play a nonconference series at Wichita State.
Opponents for midweek games include Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine, Pepperdine and San Diego State.
A veteran lineup and solid pitching give USC the necessary components for a 2006 NCAA Tournament run and a possible trip to Omaha.
TOMORROW | 11:00am PTLive