Behind Enemy Lines: Auburn-USC Baseball preview with Matt Zemek of Trojans Wire
Auburn Baseball received a gift of sorts on Tuesday night, as it was announced that their upcoming weekend series with USC will now be played at Plainsman Park after an inclement weather forecast forced the series to change venues from Dedeaux Field in Los Angeles as originally planned.
Sure, there is disappointment that the Tigers will have to wait another season to visit sunny Southern California, but it does help that they will play their second-straight Power Five opponent in front of the home crowd.
The Tigers opened the season by winning two-of-three games over Indiana last weekend at Plainsman Park behind great plate appearances by newcomers Ike Irish and Justin Kirby. Auburn’s hot streak continued on Tuesday night as the Tigers defeated North Alabama, 13-1 in seven innings at Toyota Field in Madison.
The Trojans enter the weekend with a mirrored 3-1 record after sweeping Marist last weekend and falling to UC-Irvine in midweek action on Tuesday. USC got similar results on the mound as Auburn did last weekend by recording outs without many strikeouts. First baseman Nick Lopez has also shown power at the plate for the Trojans.
What else do we need to know about USC before this weekend’s series? We called on Matt Zemek of Trojans Wire to help us out.
Zemek talks about last weekend’s series against Marist, the importance of Nick Lopez, and just how important this series is to the 12-time national champions. Without further delay, here is the latest edition of Behind Enemy Lines with Matt Zemek of Trojans Wire.
Katie Chin/USC Athletics
The Trojans scored 34 runs in a three-game sweep of Marist to open the season. What was your biggest takeaway from the series?
It’s hard to take away too much from a series against Marist. That said, this is the first season under new coach Andy Stankiewicz. The fact that USC got off to a roaring start can only help the team build confidence under a new leader who, like Lincoln Riley on the football field last season, is trying to create a new culture and revive a long-dormant program. Certain dynamics and realities can (and do) exist independent of the schedule or the quality of opponent. Building good habits contains value even against lower-tier opposition. The hope is that it can become something more. Whether it actually will is the real question.
Getting everyone involved
Lyn Golden/ USC Athletics
Like Auburn, USC’s pitching limited hits in the first two games of the season without recording many strikeouts. How much of a challenge will USC’s defense provide Auburn’s offense?
Going from Marist to the SEC is a Grand Canyon-level distance in terms of quality and the caliber of competition. Let’s put it this way: USC will have to earn the benefit of the doubt with its performance. USC is decades removed from being a baseball program which entered the season being feared and respected. The Trojans need to get that back, but they don’t have it now. They need to claim it. It’s a “prove it” series for USC, to be sure.
Nick carries the big stick
Jenny Chuang/USC Athletics
Nick Lopez has been stellar at the plate with a .500 average and three home runs. If Auburn finds a way to cool him off, does USC have other lineup threats that could keep them afloat?
USC did get production up and down the batting order against Marist. It’s too early to look at this USC batting order and circle one guy and say, “This player (or this spot in the batting order) is the true hinge point in the whole offense.” What also has to be mentioned is that guys have to get on base for Lopez so that Auburn doesn’t have the luxury of being able to pitch around him. USC — like any other baseball team which has gone through an extended (nearly decade-long) period of bad play and poor results — needs an all-hands-on-deck approach more than one savior, and as any baseball fan knows, giving adequate protection to the one star is so essential to the creation of an elite team. The Yankees could feast on bad teams with Aaron Judge and eight other guys (maybe Anthony Rizzo stood out to an extent, but that’s it). The Astros ate them up. It takes a full team, and we’re going to learn about USC’s team in this series.
New kid on the block
Which starting pitcher has the most potential to shut Auburn’s bats down?
Blake Sodersten (Cal-State Northridge transfer) struck out nine Marist hitters in the five innings he worked. He shows the punchout ability other USC starters haven’t displayed to the same extent. That has to be the first place to look for a pitcher who might be able to establish command of the strike zone and get Auburn hitters on the back foot.
Change of plans
Jenny Chuang/ USC Athletics
How much do you feel that the series being moved to Auburn will affect the Trojans?
New head coach, new season, new everything — it’s a USC season with so many uncertainties. Now comes this plot twist. It is probably not conducive to good performance for USC, but then again, going to Auburn worked out pretty well for Pete Carroll in 2003. It could be that being on the road might knit this team together and also create a sense of having no pressure. Realistically, though, I don’t expect it to benefit USC.
Auburn takes the cake
Jacob Taylor/Auburn Tigers
How do you see this series shaking out?
It starts with USC’s pitching. The starters went five to six innings against Marist. Some of the relief pitchers, such as Caden Connolly and Josh Blum, were electric out of the bullpen. Yet, that was Marist, not Auburn. The pitching has to measure up, but again, it’s hard to give USC the benefit of the doubt until the Trojans establish themselves as a real force.
Auburn wins the series, 2-1. The Trojans would love to win the series, but the main point of emphasis is for the team to learn what it is capable of and use this series as a