USC All the Way Back in Title Game


USC is referred to in dynastic terms here, with present-tense verbs blurring reality in the heartland of college baseball. The Trojans are winners of 11 College World Series championships, and no one has won more.

But the past tense is a better fit. The last USC title came in 1978. When the Trojans beat Arizona State, 10-3, for the title, Rik Currier was 13 days old.

He's a 20-year-old freshman now, and he can turn past into present today when he pitches for USC in the championship game against, coincidentally enough, the Sun Devils. What goes around comes around, but it sometimes takes a while.

The Trojans thrust themselves into the title game Friday with a 7-3 win over Louisiana State that completed an improbable four-win run after a first-game, 12-10 loss to the Tigers, the two-time defending champions.

USC did the same thing in 1995, only to lose to Cal State Fullerton in the championship game.

"Yes, I've thought, 'Oh no, not again,' " Trojan Coach Mike Gillespie said. "This is not the script we wanted to follow and I certainly wouldn't recommend it. But now that we've gotten through it, we can look back at great memories and a lot of excitement."

The memories are of enough hitting to beat Florida, 12-10, and pitching that dominated Mississippi State and LSU, twice.

Friday was Mike Penney's turn, with help from Jason Lane. Plenty of help.

"This was just about the perfect game for us," Gillespie said. "I don't know if we could have combined a more perfect pitching performance from two guys, along with clutch hitting and great defense."

Penney pitched 7 2/3 innings and was coasting in the eighth when he ran into LSU's long suit: the home run. It was a three-run job, hit by Jeff Leaumont, but its effect was muted by the 7-0 lead USC enjoyed at the time.

Much of that was provided by Lane, whose first homer gave the Trojans a 2-0 advantage in the fourth inning and whose second, a first-pitch, leadoff homer in the seventh, made it 5-0.

To demonstrate his versatility, Lane the designated hitter became Lane the relief pitcher after Wes Davis followed Leaumont's homer with an infield hit with two out in the eighth. Lane got Blair Barbier to foul out to end the inning, then retired the side in order in the ninth.

Penney, who struggled in the first inning before settling down, gave up eight hits and struck out five.

"Nerves were a little bit of a factor [in the first]," he admitted. "I'm normally a slow starter. But I thought, 'Hey, I survived it.' After that, I just tried to keep my team in the game."

That he did, with some timely hitting by Lane and by Greg Hanoian, who twice drove in runs with two-out singles.

"I thought Mike [Penney] was magnificent," LSU Coach Skip Bertman said. "I also thought USC mastered the timely hit. They did a great job with two outs, getting runs beyond the home runs."

Morgan Ensberg also homered for USC.

The victory set up a renewal of a baseball rivalry that has become one of the most bitter in the Pacific 10. Twice in the last 10 years, the two teams have brawled, once at Tempe, most recently in 1996 at USC.

"That won't happen [today]," Gillespie promised.

The Trojans swept Arizona State in a three-game series at home in March, then were swept at Tempe in April.

"Like USC is with Notre Dame and USC is against UCLA in football, that's what it's like with ASU and USC in baseball," Trojan second baseman Wes Rachels said.

Even this year's games were not without controversy. Arizona State Coach Pat Murphy accused USC first-base coach Rob Klein of stealing the pitches of today's Sun Devil starter, Ryan Mills, in a March 15 game in which Mills, the sixth choice overall in Tuesday's draft, was beaten by USC, 6-3.

Mills, a left-hander, gave up five earned runs and six hits in three innings in that one.

Klein hotly denied the whole thing, but Gillespie would say only that "so much has been made of that, it borders on the silly."

Mills apparently had the problem fixed April 9 when he struck out 15 USC hitters over eight innings in an 18-3 win.

Arizona State comes into the game as the only undefeated team in the tournament, and with two days of rest. USC will be playing for the third day in a row.

Today's game will be the first all-Pac-10 final since Stanford beat Arizona State, 9-4, for the 1988 title. The Cardinal was also the last Pac-10 team to win a national championship.

"We play each other six times [every season], so I don't need to look at any charts," said Murphy, whose team finished third, behind Stanford and USC, in the Pac-10's Southern Division. "This says a lot for the Six-Pac."

It says that the division has survived a field in which half of the teams were from the Southeastern Conference. Bertman's plight is dealing with the folks back home after failing to win a third title in a row.

"Coming in third is not meeting expectations for some," he said. "Obviously, those expectations are unrealistic. USC played better than us in the last 48 hours. They played well."

And now the task is to play well enough one more day.


Championship Game

USC (48-17) vs. Arizona State (41-22)

* Today: 9:30 a.m. PDT * TV: Ch. 2 * Radio: KPLS (830)

* Story line: USC, the second-place team in the Pacific 10's Southern Division, finds itself playing the third-place team for the national title, and the Trojans will start freshman Rik Currier (6-1, 4.76 ERA), who hopes for a better fate than he suffered the first time he faced Arizona State. That was on April 11, when he gave up six earned runs and five hits over two innings of a 24-4 loss at Tempe that finished a sweep by the Sun Devils. It marked the low point of the USC season and was the only loss of the season for Currier. Currier is opposed by left-handed junior Ryan Mills (8-3, 4.25), who was hammered by USC on March 15, giving up five earned runs in three innings. But he struck out 15 Trojans on April 9 in an 18-3 win in the three-game sweep in Tempe.

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