After an 8-3 loss on Friday night, USC baseball looked like it was in a tailspin. Less than 48 hours later, every member of the Trojans roster was in a mosh pit in the outfield of Dedeaux Field, celebrating a series victory over the No. 22 UCLA Bruins.
Defeating rival UCLA two times out of three is always a major accomplishment for the Trojan program, but the two wins on Saturday and Sunday meant even more because of the resolve it showed. The team had dropped five straight games in the Pac-12 and sat just two games above .500 in conference play after a 9-2 start. Yet, the Trojans shook all that off and secured two come-from-behind wins to take their fifth conference series of the season.
“We had a rough weekend in Corvallis,” head coach Andy Stankiewicz said. “It takes courage, it takes fortitude and toughness to let it all go, forget about the past and focus on the present. We got kicked around a little bit, the guys said, ‘Enough’s enough, let’s play some good baseball.’ That’s what they did in these last two games.”
Friday night’s game was full of anticipation before the first pitch was even thrown. Dedeaux had its largest crowd of the season by far, with an announced attendance of 2,057. The Spirit of Troy and the Song Girls were in the stadium, and the ceremonial first pitch was thrown out by none other than Lincoln Riley.
Riley’s pitch was a perfect strike. Unfortunately for USC, the Trojan pitching staff did not have the same success on the mound as their head football coach.
Junior starting pitcher Tyler Stromsborg had a rough start to his evening. The two teams exchanged runs in the first, but the Bruins hit back-to-back singles to put traffic on the bases once again in the second.
With runners on second and third, junior designated hitter Carson Yates attempted a sacrifice bunt to score the runner from third. Stromsborg charged to the ball quickly, and attempted to throw out senior catcher Darius Perry. No further than ten feet from the plate, Stromsborg threw the ball to the backstop, allowing both Perry and sophomore center fielder Malakhi Knight to score unearned runs.
The Bruins would tack on two more in the inning to lead 5-1. Stromsborg was charged with three more earned runs in the sixth and could not finish the inning. The right-hander’s 5.1 innings pitched was his shortest outing since March 3.
Facing junior right hander Jake Brooks, the Trojans were unable to string any offense together throughout the night. They finished with more base hits than their opponents, but never put up a crooked number. The heart of the USC lineup could not find its way on base. The two-through-seven hitters recorded one base hit in 20 at bats.
The lone bright spot on an otherwise lost night was freshman center fielder Austin Overn. Leading off the bottom of the first inning, Overn made history, breaking Grant Green’s record for triples in a single season by a Trojan with his 11th. The record had stood since 2007. Overn was hardly satisfied, as he then recorded his 12th three-bagger down the right-field line in the fifth.
Saturday’s game was a battle of ace pitchers. Sophomore right hander Caden Aoki entered the game with an ERA of 1.37, while sophomore Alonzo Tredwell had the fourth-lowest ERA in the conference among qualified pitchers. Naturally, not much scoring took place early.
Aoki had yet another career day on the mound for USC. He pitched 6.1 innings — the first time he had ever pitched into the seventh as a starter — and set a new career high in strikeouts with eight. His only hiccup came in the fourth, when he allowed a solo home run to sophomore first baseman Jack Holman. Aoki has now allowed one run or fewer in seven of his eight appearances this season.
“Aoki did a great job,” Stankiewicz said. “We needed that shot in the arm, and it gave us some momentum going into [Sunday].”
While Aoki was dealing, the offense was struggling to hit Tredwell. The right-hander only needed 65 pitches to keep the Trojans off the board in the first five innings. Given how dominant Aoki had been, just one crooked number could give USC the edge it needed.
The big offensive inning finally came in the bottom of the sixth. Junior left fielder Carson Wells went the other way with an RBI double that landed just inside the foul line to even the score. One at-bat later, senior third baseman Johnny Olmstead, who had been moved up to the cleanup spot that night, hit a pitch below his knees over the wall in left field for a two-run homer.
Tredwell was knocked out of the game before he could get through the sixth, but USC was not done. Junior shortstop Ryan Jackson hit a two-run single with the bases loaded, giving the Trojans a 5-1 lead. That score would stand for the rest of the night, as neither sophomore left-hander Caden Connolly or redshirt junior righty Kyle Wisch allowed a Bruin to reach base while recording the final eight outs of the ballgame.
Redshirt senior right-hander Blake Sodersten was sensational Sunday, pitching five innings of two-hit, shutout ball, tied for his longest outing of the season. Sophomore lefty Ethan Flanagan also had a career day in length for UCLA, but gave up solo homers to senior right fielder Gabrielson and freshman first baseman Ethan Hedges in his four and a third.
USC took a quick 3-0 lead in the early innings, but failed to extend the lead at all by the time it went to its bullpen.
Junior third baseman Kyle Karros, who had been 0-for-11 in the series thus far, turned the game on its head against Wisch in the seventh. He hit a bases-clearing double down the right field line that gave the Bruins a 5-3 lead.
After losing a three-run lead in two innings, the Trojans were in desperate need of a break. It came in the bottom half of the seventh, when Overn hit a ball right between the legs of Holman at first base, putting runners on second and third. Redshirt freshman second baseman Bryce Martin-Grudzielanek got his team within a run with a long sacrifice fly, and Wells tied the game with a check-swing RBI single that landed in left field.
With the score now even in the late innings, each team turned to their elite reliever. USC pitched redshirt senior righty Garrett Clarke in both the eighth and the ninth, who stranded four UCLA baserunners in his two scoreless frames.
With Clarke keeping the game tied, the drama shifted to the bottom of the ninth, as the Trojans looked for their first walk-off win of 2023. It would be no easy task, as they faced freshman reliever Cody Delvecchio, who entered the game with an ERA of 0.55. Yet, the team loaded the bases on singles by Jackson and Martin-Grudzielanek, as well as an intentional walk to Wells.
With one out, Olmstead fouled out to third, putting the game in the bat of Gabrielson. Gabrielson was 0-for-4 at the plate entering that at-bat, but all of that was about to be forgotten. He smoked a ball the other way to deep right field, where junior right fielder JonJon Vaughns was playing shallow, and the ball landed over his head onto the warning track to win the game.
“Kudos to the guys in front of me for getting on base,” Gabrielson said. “When I got up there, I just looked for my pitch to drive. I wasn’t trying to do too much, just needed a base hit. I felt like I was seeing it well, I got my hacks off and was able to get a good pitch I could drive. I’m just happy I got the job done for the boys.”
After touching first base, Gabrielson sprinted out to left field to celebrate, before being mobbed by every member of the USC roster. His jersey was ripped off, the crowd of over 1,800 was in a frenzy and the Trojans had earned their first home series win against their crosstown rival since 2005.
“It was pretty exciting,” Stankiewicz said about the atmosphere over the weekend. “We want to play well for our family, our friends and our fans. We want them to be excited about coming back to Dedeaux. Hopefully this is the beginning of something we can continue to build on.”
The series win improves USC to 24-14-1 on the season and 11-7 in the Pac-12. It will finish up a five-game homestand on Tuesday night with a nonconference bout against UC San Diego.