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Daily Trojan
Baseball faces questions after subpar 2017 season

By TREVOR DENTON
June 6, 2017 in Sports
Last weekend, the USC baseball team concluded a challenging season, losing its eighth straight Pac-12 series to Washington. For the second straight year, the Trojans are at home for the NCAA Tournament, thus forcing some difficult questions about head coach Dan Hubbs’ job security and the program’s vitality going forward.

When USC finished second place in the conference and made the NCAA Regionals in 2015, Hubbs was awarded a multi-year contract extension. After years of mediocrity, the program finally appeared to be on track. Articles titled “Dan Hubbs has been a hit as USC baseball coach” and “How Dan Hubbs changed culture of USC baseball” flooded the internet, and the coach seemed to herald a new era of USC baseball dominance. Now, just two years later, the landscape looks a lot different.

In the wake of Hubbs’ worst conference finish since becoming head coach in 2013 (tied for last place in the conference with an 8-22 Pac-12 record), USC is once again at a crossroads. The easy explanation for this year’s season-long slump was a massive exodus of talent that occurred at last year’s MLB draft, where the Trojans had a program-record 12 players selected. Even with all of those star players on the roster, however, USC still finished 28-28 and failed to make the tournament in 2016.

Despite the departures of many star players including catcher Jeremy Martinez and outfielder Timmy Robinson at the end of last season, the Trojans boasted their fair share of hitting talent this spring. Sophomore Lars Nootbaar (.313, 7 HR) and junior Frankie Rios (.354, 26 RBI) were both All-Pac-12 selections, while junior Adalberto Carrillo and sophomore Brandon Perez were named as honorable mentions. All four anchored a lineup that was stronger than the team’s record suggested. The group finished sixth in the conference for team batting average (.273), total hits (518) and home runs (33).

The batting order’s glaring weakness, however, was capitalizing on scoring opportunities, as they were eighth in RBIs (245) and runs scored (272) with runners in scoring position. USC had plenty of games like its season finale against Washington — a 7-4 loss — where the Trojans were able to outhit their opponents, yet could not convert those hits into enough runs. With much of its order likely returning next season, the team will need to work on leaving fewer runners stranded to maximize its offensive potential.

Unlike the batting order, USC’s pitching stats accurately reflected the team’s plight this year. The young and inexperienced rotation (only two pitchers started more than two games in 2016) never quite found its footing, as the staff finished with the second worst team ERA (5.56) in the Pac-12 while giving up the second-most hits (542). There will be no easy fix for a bullpen that never found any semblance of consistency. Five pitchers started more than five games, but only one of them, freshman Chris Clarke, had a winning record. While the group will enter 2018 with more experience, they will need to make drastic changes for next year’s team to improve to a winning record.

There are a few positives to take into next season, especially if the core of the batting order returns. But with Hubbs now firmly on the hot seat after two straight disappointing seasons, the Trojans are in need of a significant turnaround. And so, after a false dawn of sorts, the quest to put the program back on the map continues.
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