Starting pitching boosts USC baseball to sweep of Washington State

The Trojans’ pitching staff allowed just seven runs in the three game set.

Hammond throws a pitch.

The Andy Stankiewicz era in Southern California is still just getting started, but this weekend’s three-game sweep of Washington State is another indicator of a USC baseball program on the rise.

The Trojans took all three from the Cougars by multiple runs at Dedeaux Field over the weekend for their first Pac-12 sweep since March 2021. In 2022, the team only won two series in their conference schedule all season but has won its first three sets against conference opponents so far this season.

“We’ve got a long way to go, we know that,” USC head coach Stankiewicz said about the promising start to the season. “The past is the past, all we’ve got right now is what we have in front of us, and we want to play good baseball that day. I think that’s one of the things that they’ve bought into.”

On Friday night, junior starting pitcher Tyler Stromsborg gave USC his best start of the season thus far. His evening got off to a rocky start, when WSU junior first baseman Sam Brown hit a laser over the right-field wall for a two-run home run in the top of the first.

In the top of the third, Washington State threatened again with runners on the corners, but Stromsborg got out of the jam by striking out sophomore second baseman Elijah Hainline to retire the side.

Starting with the strikeout of Hainline, Stromsborg retired the final 13 batters he faced. He pitched a full seven innings for the first time in his career and allowed a season-low two runs for his second straight start. He also set a new career high in strikeouts with 10, while walking just one batter.

“Our starters understand trusting the pitches, trusting the bullpen, trusting the training, and taking it into a game,” Stankiewicz said. “We can’t always rely on the bullpen every night. We always talk about how if we can get our starters to give us five, six or seven innings, we’re gonna be in a much better spot.”

After scratching runs across in the third and fourth innings, USC broke the game open by putting up two crooked numbers in the following frames. A pair of two-out hits from senior designated hitter Nick Lopez and freshman first baseman Ethan Hedges combined to drive in four USC runs in the fifth.

One inning later, with runners on first and second, junior shortstop Ryan Jackson layed down a bunt to the third-base side. Cougar sophomore third baseman Cam Magee threw the ball past first base, allowing one run to score, then Brown made an error trying to return the ball to the infield, giving the Trojans a second run. USC scored three more unearned runs in the inning, with RBI hits from senior right fielder Cole Gabrielson, Lopez and Hedges.

Overall, the Trojans hit .444 on the night, and .500 with two outs to lead the team to a 13-3 win. The trio of Gabrielson, Lopez and Hedges were particularly deadly in the heart of the batting order, combining to hit 9-for-12 with three doubles and eight RBIs.

On Saturday night, USC gave the ball to sophomore right hander Caden Aoki, making his second start of the season. Aoki pitched a strong game, spending most of the night getting into and out of trouble. He stranded five Washington State runners in his four innings of work.

In the fourth inning, Aoki gave up a leadoff double and a walk, bringing junior designated hitter Brandham Ponce to the plate in an RBI situation. Pitching from the stretch again, Aoki gave the Trojans exactly what they needed, as Ponce grounded into a 4-6-3 double play. He then struck out junior shortstop Kyle Russell looking to get out of a first-and-third jam, retiring the side.

Aoki pitched a season-high four innings of shutout ball, after allowing three runs in as many innings in his only other start this year. The Trojan bullpen allowed a combined three hits and one run in five innings of relief, shutting the door on any Cougar comeback attempt.

Offensively, USC continued to put pressure on Washington State’s defense by recording 11 hits and striking out just six times.

“Part of our game plan was to sometimes take a little bit off our swings and put the ball in play,” Stankiewitz said. “When you strike out, you don’t put pressure on anybody. Our ability to put the ball in play with two strikes put us at an advantage.”

In the fourth, redshirt freshman second baseman Bryce Martin-Grudzielanek hit a two-out double down the first base line, bringing the top of the Trojan order back to the plate. One at-bat later, freshman center fielder Austin Overn hit a laser to deep right field that bounced off the top of the wall and left the ballpark for his first home run of the season.

Martin-Grudzielanek drove in a run of his own on a night where he hit 3-for-4 in the nine hole. Overn also crossed home plate once more in the eighth on a passed ball, putting the icing on the cake of a 6-1 win.

Going for the series sweep on Sunday afternoon, USC got another unexpectedly effective outing from its starting pitcher. Redshirt freshman Eric Hammond entered the game with a 6.65 ERA and was only averaging three innings per start. In this game, however, he worked efficiently, only needing 64 pitches to get through a season-high five innings while allowing two runs.

“We need innings out of [Hammond] badly,” Stankiewitz said. “I’m proud of his effort, he found a way to get us back in the dugout numerous times. He didn’t give up a big inning, which is a big part of our success here.”

Although the Cougars scratched runs across in the second and fifth innings, the Trojans stayed ahead of pace throughout the day. Senior catcher Connor Clift knocked an RBI single into right to bring in one of USC’s three runs in the first two innings.

Russell got Washington State back within a run in the fifth, but the Trojans responded immediately. With runners on first and second, Martin-Grudzielanek, who was moved up to second in the lineup, hit a double all the way to the wall in right center, bringing both home and giving the Trojans a 5-2 lead. Martin-Grudzielanek made the absolute most of his opportunity at the top of the order, going 2-for-4 with two extra-base hits.

“[Martin-Grudzielanek has] done a great job,” Stankiewitz said. “He was a nice shot in the arm in the two hole. He just jumped in, and his good at-bats last night carried over into today with some nice AB’s.”

After USC sophomore reliever Fisher Johnson allowed a run in two innings after Hammond’s exit, senior Kyle Wisch and redshirt senior Garrett Clarke shut the door at the end of the game. Wisch and Clarke each pitched a 1-2-3 inning in the eighth and ninth, respectively, to clinch the 6-3 victory.

The three wins boost the Trojans’ record to 14-8-1, and 7-2 in the Pac-12. USC will look to avenge its first loss of the season on Tuesday night against UC Irvine in the first of a four-game road trip.