It hasn’t been the best of seasons for USC, and that’s putting it mildly. The Trojans were supposed to be one of the strongest teams in the Pacific 10 Southern Division. Coach Rod Dedeaux even went so far as to say that his club was capable of winning the title.
About all that USC has a chance of winning now, though, is the dubious distinction of finishing with the worst conference record of any team since the league was formed in 1979.
USC was swept by Arizona last week, the sweep extending the Trojans’ conference losing streak to 10 games. USC is last in the six-team league with a 4-17 record. With nine league games left, three this weekend against first-place Stanford, the Trojans could wind up with a worse mark than UCLA’s 7-23 in 1981.
Even if USC falls short of UCLA’s dubious achievement, it still can beat its own record for futility, that being a 9-21 mark in 1982. The Trojans are 20-33 overall and have 14 games to break the school record of 36 losses, also set in 1982.
What changed USC from a title contender to a cellar dweller? There have been many things:
--The inability to field a set lineup. Going into the fourth conference series back in mid-March, Dedeaux had yet to decide who some of his regulars were. The lineup still is unsettled.
--Poor pitching. This department was thought to be one of the club’s strengths, but it has been more of a liability. The team earned-run average is 5.86, and in 464 innings, the staff has yielded 545 hits and 319 walks. You aren’t going to win many games with those numbers unless you score a lot.
--Lack of offense. The team batting average of .276 would be considered good for a big-league club, but it’s mediocre for a college team. Some players Dedeaux was counting on to produce haven’t. Randy Gabrielson, Kevin Janik and Tim Tyson, who have shared time in center, have a combined batting average of .227 and a total of 21 RBIs. Second basemen Ken Housley, Rodney Peete and Jim Wilkey are hitting .214. The Trojans are scoring 5.13 runs a game, but have stranded 418 runners, an average of 7.88.
--Injuries. Most teams have injury problems, and USC certainly has had its share. Among those sidelined have been right fielder Jeff Wetherby, the team’s leading hitter, shortstop Al Villasenor, the second-leading hitter, catchers Damon Oppenheimer and Brian Nichols, Peete, Gabrielson and Janik. Nichols, who has an infected right thumb, and Janik, who has a broken right thumb, are out for the rest of the season.
According to Dedeaux and assistant coaches Keith Brown and Tim Behler, the costliest injuries were Oppenheimer’s and Nichols’. Both players were sidelined the week of the fourth conference series, against Arizona State. Oppenheimer returned for the Arizona series after having missed 20 games with torn ligaments in his right knee.
Their absence forced USC to use Kalani Perry, a freshman up from the junior varsity who had caught only six innings with the varsity before starting against Arizona State. Sophomore Paul Fuller is a catcher, but he was being used as the designated hitter, and Dedeaux wanted to keep him in that spot.
Perry has also struggled with the bat. His average is .188, and he has driven in only six runs.
“It’s been tough,” Dedeaux said. “It’s hurt us, sure. Perry had never caught this staff. . . . He’s just not making the plays, the throws. They’re (opposing teams) running on us.”
series, opposing runners have stolen 54 bases in 66 attempts. For the season, it’s 101 of 140.
There have been a few bright spots for USC. One is the steady all-round play of third baseman Dan Henley, who has started 51 of the team’s 53 games. His batting average is only .268, but he has hit the ball hard and has five homers, 33 RBIs and five game-winning hits.
Another has been the improved play of Oppenheimer. As The No. 2 catcher behind Jack Del Rio last season, he batted only .224. Although he hasn’t played that much because of his injury--18 games, 14 as the starter--he’s hitting .357 and has committed only one error.
And there’s the hitting of Wetherby, or there was, for the first half of the season, anyway. Wetherby, the transfer from College of the Canyons, where he batted .592 and was the state junior college player of the year, is batting .366 with seven homers and 38 RBIs.
Those aren’t bad numbers, but on March 9, after USC’s 24th game, he was hitting .429. Since then his average has dropped 63 points, he hasn’t hit a homer and he’s driven in only nine runs.
“It’s been a frustrating season,” Wetherby said as he sat in the USC dugout Sunday before the Trojans’ loss to Arizona, 11-1. He was in street clothes, and the lower half of his left leg was in a plastic cast.
Wetherby, who hopes to play against Stanford this weekend, said his injuries started three weeks ago at the Oklahoma tournament as an Achilles’ tendon problem. He played anyway, and in favoring the foot, developed shin splints. Now he has tendinitis.
He said that getting moved around in the lineup affected his performance because he wasn’t sure what his responsibilities were. He would have preferred to bat in the same spot--third--all season.
“If I did, I would have hit .400,” he said. “I’m at .370 (.366) now, and that’s not too bad, but. . . . Then, when we started to lose, I put too much pressure on myself. I tried to do too much. . . . I was the big hitter.”
Baseball Notes The most productive hitter on the West Coast would have to be Brad Bierley, Pepperdine’s senior center fielder. In five games last week he batted .500 (10 for 20) with seven home runs and 16 RBIs. In the Waves’ three West Coast Athletic Conference games against Nevada Reno he went 7 for 14 with five homers and 12 RBIs. In 46 games this season, Bierley is batting .359--he raised his average 17 points last week--with 23 homers and 60 RBIs. He has a slugging percentage of .807, has stolen 24 bases and has handled 87 chances without an error. Of his 21 hits in Pepperdine’s 18 conference games, 12 are homers, and he’s driven in 33 runs. . . . Bierley’s hitting is just one reason Pepperdine is 37-8-1 overall and leads the WCAC with a 15-3 record. Another is the pitching of Scott Marrett. The junior right-hander is 11-0 with a 1.19 ERA and has walked only 20 in 98 innings. He beat Nevada Reno, 12-10, last Friday, but only three runs were earned. Marrett had to leave the game with two out in the ninth inning after being struck on his pitching hand by a line drive. He’s expected to pitch this weekend when the Waves play three games against Loyola Marymount. . . . Pepperdine, whose 11-game winning streak was snapped by Reno Saturday, has won 12 of its last 13 and 25 of 28. The Waves lead second-place Santa Clara (10-7) by 4 1/2 games with six games left. Loyola is third at 8-7. The Waves are 22-4 in games decided by two runs or less.
If Arizona is to win the Pacific 10 Southern Division, the Wildcats will have to do it without Mike Young, their most effective pitcher. Young, a junior left-hander, was struck in the face by a line drive hit by Toi Cook in the second inning of Arizona’s series opener at Stanford, April 12. The ball shattered Young’s left cheekbone. He underwent reconstructive surgery April 16 at Stanford Medical Center. Young, from Rancho Palos Verdes--he played at Rolling Hills High and Harbor College before going to Arizona--attended last weekend’s series at USC. He said he’ll be out at least four weeks, but hopes to pitch again if Arizona gets into the NCAA playoffs. Young is 8-4 with a 4.27 ERA and has 74 strikeouts in 86 innings. He has also picked off nine baserunners. . . . USC scored just six runs and managed only 24 hits against Arizona’s pitching staff, whose ERA was 5.08 and had allowed 520 hits in 455 innings. On Sunday, the Trojans were held to one run and five hits by Derek Huenneke, a junior right-hander subbing for Young and making only his fifth start. He entered the game with an ERA of 5.63, and had allowed 44 hits in 40 innings.