After winning their first game 3-2 in walk-off fashion Friday and shutting the LMU Lions down 5-0 Saturday, the Trojans lost a nail-biter in the 11th inning Sunday to claim a 2-1 record to start off the 2021 season.
“Every time you go in to play someone, you want to take two out of three or sweep them,” head coach Jason Gill said following Sunday’s game. “We had an opportunity to sweep, but we still took two out of three.”
Pitching and defense took center stage during the Trojans’ wins on Friday and Saturday.
During the season opener, starting pitcher junior Isaac Esqueda rebounded after a difficult first inning in which he allowed two runs but worked out of trouble to leave runners stranded on second and third. Esqueda struck out the side in order in the second and came up with big strikeouts in the third and fourth innings to escape trouble, finishing the night with seven strikeouts through five innings of work.
The Trojans’ defense also showed up big on Friday night, as redshirt freshman center fielder Rhylan Thomas executed a perfect throw home in the seventh inning to throw out a runner and keep it a one-run game. Later, with the game tied in the top of the ninth, freshman catcher Garret Guillemette caught LMU freshman infielder Cole Roberts attempting to steal third.
On Saturday, right-handed starter redshirt sophomore Chandler Champlain pitched six dominant innings, allowing no runs on four hits and striking out six. Redshirt junior Brian Gursky was called on to pitch in relief, throwing three shutout innings with four strikeouts to finish the game.
“In terms of what we’ve focused on since we’ve gotten back in January, it’s just been really about ... throwing strikes and playing catch,” Gill said Saturday. “We’re trying to keep it as simple as possible and really focused on our defense as a priority … When you play defense and you throw strikes, you’re gonna be in every ballgame.”
That same pitching and defense didn’t show up for the Trojans during Sunday’s series finale.
After jumping out to an early two-run lead, the Trojans committed three errors in the first two innings — including a dropped throw on what would have been an easy outfield assist at the plate — allowing the Lions to claim a 4-2 lead. Later in the game, redshirt junior shortstop Ben Ramirez made two crucial errors, one of which allowed the Lions to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth.
“We didn’t play good defense today,” Gill said following the loss. “Obviously we’re not happy about that, but I’m not thinking that’s going to be every game. I don’t see that being a habit in our program. We’re a pretty good defensive team … Sometimes in baseball these things happen and we’ve got to get to work and get better so that we do it less often.”
Starting pitcher redshirt sophomore Alex Cornwell was pulled from Sunday’s game in the fourth inning after allowing seven runs (four earned) and 10 hits. The Lions seemed to see the ball well against him and made solid contact throughout his abbreviated start.
“They were all over [Cornwell],” Gill said. “I thought his fastball was a little straight … I’ve gotta tip off my cap to [the Lions’ batters]. They did a good job when he was up in the zone. They did a good job of putting good swings on the ball and getting on base.”
On offense, the Trojans got off to a slow start on Friday but were able to manage just enough to win. Following home runs from redshirt freshman left fielder Tyresse Turner and redshirt junior right fielder Jamal O’Guinn to tie the game, the Trojans loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth before pinch hitter Bart West drew a walk to force home the winning run.
There was nothing slow about the Trojans’ offense Sunday, however. Redshirt sophomore first baseman Clay Owens hit solo home runs in each of his first two at-bats, finishing the night 3-for-4 with a walk. Freshman shortstop Nate Clow followed that up with a long three-run home run to right field in the top of the third, finishing the night 2-for-6 with a double and the homer to his credit.
“[The offense] is pretty versatile,” Gill said following the series finale. “We’ve got some left-handed power in there, some right-handed power and some speed in there. So I was proud of what they did today.”
Though the Trojans endured a frustrating loss on Sunday, Gill remains optimistic and hungry heading into the next three-game series against the Cal Poly Mustangs this weekend.
“It’s gonna leave a bitter taste in our mouths, but sometimes a bitter taste is a good thing to have when you’re going into a week with no midweek [game] to get better,” Gill said. “And we need to get better.”