Trojans’ offensive spark put out by Bruins as USC drops weekend finale

USC went 2-1 over the weekend with key victories over Sacramento State and Tulane at home.

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USC baseball’s offense exploded for 21 runs over Friday and Saturday’s victories but could only score three in its weekend finale against rival UCLA.

USC opened up its weekend slate of games against Sacramento State on Friday night at Dedeaux Field as part of the Southern California College Baseball Classic. The Trojans aimed to get back on track against the 6-1 Sacramento State Hornets, as they were winless in their last five contests.

“We just haven’t been able to put it together here lately,” head coach Andy Stankiewicz said. “I want to see a consistent approach offensively, I want to see strikes on the mound and I want to play good defense, and we haven’t been able to combine those three.”

The Trojans looked to get back on track behind Opening Day starter Tyler Stromsborg. Freshman center fielder Austin Overn wasted no time getting the game started, ripping a leadoff triple in the right-center gap. Senior right fielder Cole Gabrielson drove him in with a sacrifice fly, giving the Trojans an early 1-0 lead.

USC found adversity in the third after allowing a leadoff homerun and the first five runners of the inning to reach base. Sacramento State was looking to break the game open with the bases loaded, no outs, and a 2-1 lead.

The Trojans had other plans. After eliminating a potential run on a fielder’s choice, Gabrielson came up huge for USC, throwing a runner out at home from deep right field. This marked an inning-ending double play and the end of Sacramento State’s scoring threat.

The Trojans kept this momentum and responded in the bottom frame, as senior infielder Johnny Olmstead roped a two-out RBI single. Gabrielson followed up with a two-run blast, giving USC a 4-2 lead. After tallying another run the next inning, the Trojans took a commanding 5-2 lead into the fifth.

Following a leadoff strikeout, Stromsburg found himself in trouble in the fifth, allowing five runs on four hits in the inning. After gaining runners on third with less than two outs in the fifth and sixth, the Trojans came up empty-handed both times, still trailing 7-5 going into the seventh.

Senior designated hitter Nick Lopez came up clutch once again this season for the Trojans, driving a game-tying two-run home run to right field. Just three batters later, freshman first baseman Ethan Hedges drove an RBI triple with two outs to give USC an 8-7 lead heading into the eight.

Sophomore reliever Caden Connolly entered the game for USC as it looked to win for the first time in six games. In the top of the ninth, junior left fielder Carson Wells made a spectacular catch to rob a home run and maintain the Trojans’ lead. Connolly struck out the next batter and secured the six-out save for USC, allowing just one runner to reach base over the two innings.

USC relievers Connolly and sophomore Josh Blum combined for 4.2 innings pitched, allowing just one hit and striking out six in the process.

“Blum did a nice job coming in and giving us a shot, keeping us in it, and Connolly, who’s been very, very good all year long,” Stankiewicz said. “We felt like, hey, leave him in the game, let him try to get that big save for us, and he did.”

USC looked to replicate Friday night’s well-rounded success against a gritty Tulane team on Saturday.

“We come out against a very aggressive Tulane team, where they like to run, they’ve got a ton of stolen bases already, so we’ve got to be able to slow down the running game when runners get on base,” Stankiewicz said.

The Trojans opened up Saturday’s game against Tulane flat, falling behind 4-1 heading into the bottom of the third. Gabrielson then smashed a three-run home run, marking his team-leading fifth home run of the season to tie the game.

Olmstead followed up with an RBI triple just two batters later. In the same inning, Overn came up to the dish with two runners on and slugged a two-out triple to lengthen the Trojans’ lead to 8-4.

Tulane hung around, however, slashing two home runs in the top of the fifth to cut the lead to 8-7. Just like USC has done several times before, it immediately answered in the bottom frame. Junior shortstop Ryan Jackson ripped a two-out, two-run double, and Gabrielson followed up by driving him in with an RBI single, his seventh RBI in just two games.

After scoring again in the seventh inning, USC and Tulane exchanged runs in the eighth thanks to another RBI triple by Overn, his third three-bagger in two games. The Trojans held a commanding 13-8 lead heading into the ninth when they closed the door.

“It’s nothing crazy,” Stankiewicz said. “It’s just about getting good at-bats together, and we did a good job with that today.”

USC held Tulane’s runners to zero stolen bases, executing their game plan to a tee and coming out victorious in the process.

The Trojans traveled to Jackie Robinson Stadium on Sunday to face off against cross-town rival and No. 17-ranked UCLA. USC handed the ball over to redshirt freshman Eric Hammond, who was looking to bounce back after getting knocked out early against Auburn last week.

Overn led off the game staying red hot, ripping a triple in the right-center gap. This marked his seventh triple on the season, three more than anyone else in all of college baseball. USC left Overn stranded at third, coming away empty-handed in the first.

The Bruins offense quickly timed up Hammond, launching a two-run home run in the second to take a 2-0 lead. UCLA added onto its lead in the third with an RBI double by sophomore designated hitter Jack Holman. After retiring the next two batters and getting through the potential threat, Hammond’s day on the mound was done.

“He’s got to get better,” Stankiewicz said. “He’s a guy that we’ve got high hopes for and believe in, but it’s time for him to start getting on the mound and getting after it.”

As zeros lit up the scoreboard for USC, the Trojans were finally able to put some runs on the board after a two-out, RBI double by Hedges drove in a run in the sixth. UCLA immediately responded, scoring two more to lead 5-1 entering the seventh.

USC was still looking for that one big hit to bring it back into the game. Gabrielson stepped up to the dish in the seventh with runners in scoring position and two outs. If there was anyone the Trojans wanted at the plate at this moment, Gabrielson was the guy.

After drawing a full count, Gabrielson struck out looking on a backdoor slider, once more falling short of cutting into the Bruins’ lead.

The Trojans’ bats remained silent until the ninth inning. After entering the game in the seventh, junior second baseman Nate Clow came up to the dish and launched a two-run home run, giving USC life. After two infield singles put the tying run on base, the Trojans had the Bruins on their heels with Lopez coming up.

That was all the fight the Trojans had in them, as Lopez soared a high fly ball to left that was caught for the final out. The Trojans fell short, losing 5-3.

USC was 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position, unable to execute on offense when it needed to most.

“It’s a little frustrating because we didn’t play particularly well,” Stankiewicz said. “We had some opportunities early, took some big swings and couldn’t get the runner in from third base with less than two outs.”

The Trojans aim to bounce back Wednesday night at Dedeaux Field against the Nevada Wolfpack before hosting second-ranked Stanford for a weekend series to begin Pac-12 play.

“We just got to learn how to play complete baseball,” Stankiewicz said. “We’re just not putting it together for nine innings, and against a good ball club, that’s gonna hurt you.”