Can Conference Play Help USC Get Back on Track?
After shocking some seriously skilled teams on the weekend and then losing to UC Irvine on Tuesday, the University of Southern California Trojans will look to get back on track this weekend as conference play begins against Washington State.
One of the keys to the team’s offense so far is senior infielder Dante Flores, one of five regulars batting .323 or better. Somehow, his game has gone downhill after a huge freshman campaign in 2012. Last year, Flores did manage to draw 15 walks, but his BA and OPS continued to dip. Until this year, that is.
Flores has really turned things around with a 20-for-56 start. He’s already scored 14 runs and is flashing way more pop with four doubles, a triple and two dingers (including one against top-ranked Vandy on the weekend — see video below) for a team-best .571 slugging percentage. Flores’ strike zone judgment (nine walks, nine strikeouts) is dramatically better, leading to a stellar .464 OBP. He’s only attempted one steal so far, and it was successful.
Flores was pretty much a full-time starter as a junior, but did nothing to suggest this kind of breakout was coming. A 41st round pick by the Padres in 2011, he was ranked among the top 100 draft prospects in California and top 500 in the country last year by Baseball America, and he’s certainly increasing those odds with his showing this season. Perfect Game USA ranked Flores as the No 44 senior in the country.
On the mound, last year’s ace, Wyatt Strahan, is now gone. Last year’s Friday night pitcher paced all starters with a 3.28 ERA. The Reds nabbed Strahan in the third round (94th overall) in the 2014 draft, and he enjoyed a strong debut at Rookie Ball, going 0-3 with a 2.76 ERA in 14 starts. In 42 1/3 IP, he did not yield a single home run and racked up 40 Ks. Strahan was a bit too hittable, but negated that with solid control.
The righty was previously picked in 2011 by Arizona in the 27th round. The fact that Strahan overcame his command issues in his junior season really helped bump up his draft stock.
Another starter gone this year is Bob Wheatley. He was the Friday starter for the Trojans in his junior season in 2013 and after improving his hit and strikeout rates last year, was taken in the 26th round (774th overall) by Toronto.
Wheatley struggled in his first taste of the pros, going 1-5 in the Rookie GCL. In five starts and seven relief appearances, he was shelled for 54 hits and 36 runs (34 earned) in 32 2/3 IP. Wheatley did manage 24 Ks, but walked 19 and served up four dingers. After recording one of the best ERAs on the Trojans in 2013, his results have really gone downhill, and he’ll need to keep the ball in the yard if he hopes to progress in the Jays’ system.
Now it’s your turn. Let us know in the comments below how you think the Trojans will fare in conference play.
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