Well before the 2010 season started, USC baseball coach Chad Kreuter was very optimistic his team would find success his fourth year as the head coach of the Trojans.
So optimistic, in fact, he threw out a superlative of sorts to explain how he felt.
“I have more confidence going into this season than any of the three previous seasons," Kreuter said at a coaches' event in January, roughly a month before USC's season was set to start against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. "Each of the three previous years we’ve had huge question marks – the pitching staff, depth, quality of starting pitching. This year we have our best pitching staff as a whole."
But, as he says now, things didn't quite work out how he planned them.
To quickly recap the four months that would follow, the Trojans finished 28-32 on the season and 7-20 in Pac-10 conference play, suffering from a myriad of injuries that would highlight a lack of pitching and infield depth and leave them grasping for air at various points in the season.
They won only four weekend series — two in conference play — and never won more than four consecutive games. USC's worst in-season skid was a mid-April tumble that saw the Trojans lose six straight to Cal and Arizona State.
By then, and by mid-May when the Trojans were outscored 36-10 over a period of three games by rivals Long Beach State and UCLA, a clear lack of pitching meant that if the Trojans' starter was uneffective on a particular day, the game would almost certainly end in defeat.
Kreuter often counts out the injuries his pitching staff suffered over the year when talking to the media. The mound-related infirmary list included: freshman right-hander Nick Berhel, redshirt sophomore right-handers Jordan Hershiser and Andrew Triggs and junior right-hander Brett Williams — who all finished the season unable to play. Various other pitchers went down for portions of 2010, and Kreuter was also without the services of a key member of the projected infield: shortstop Taylor Wrenn, who suffered a severe allergic reaction from an antibiotic used to treat bronchitis.
Wrenn played in the season opener and was effective on defense for the 17 games he did play before going home to Florida to recover fully. Kreuter said last week that a healthy Wrenn would've meant "seven, eight or nine more wins" for USC because of the defensive switches he was forced to make on the infield without his anchor at shortstop.
"This group of guys, we were just short," Kreuter said Sunday. "We needed a healthy Hershisher, Taylor Wrenn to be here all year, Andrew Triggs not to go down early. We did OK for what our circumstances were, but I'm not excited about it, and by no means can you hang your hat on anything that's been done here."
But Kreuter took solace in the comradeship he's seen develop among his team. As he talked following the Trojans' 11-5 win in Sunday's season finale, his players could be heard celebrating in the dugout, commemorating the team's five seniors.
"Hey, we started with very good team camaraderie, and we finished that way," said Kreuter, who spent 15 seasons in the big leagues. "We had some bumps in the road and it showed when we lost a couple players, but towards the end here it really picked up."
In many facets, USC was just short of finding the formula for success. Sophomore slugging first baseman Ricky Oropesa developed into a bona fide No. 3 hitter (.353 average, 20 homers, 67 RBI) over the course of the season, and the Trojans received surprisingly solid performances from a couple of sophomore right-handers, in Ben Mount (5-6, 4.32 ERA) and Brandon Garcia (2-3, 4.17). But, in the end, Kreuter conceded, he might have been a little off on his original projection of the best team in his four years as the USC coach. But he said he wasn't off on what he expected to see from his players.
"I said going into this season — this might not be the most talented group of players that we've had," Kreuter said, "but it's certainly going to be the best team, as far as playing together, getting along as a group, that type of stuff."