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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA COLLEGE BASEBALL PREVIEW

USC's Kreuter feeling at home

February 02, 2007|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

Before he could fill out his first lineup card or name an opening-day starter, Chad Kreuter had some reshuffling to do.

With his office furniture.

Every time he walked into the USC baseball office he inherited from Mike Gillespie, the former longtime Trojans coach who also happens to be his father-in-law and mentor, Kreuter felt as if he were invading someone else's space.

"It was a situation where I'm in his office, and that's his office. It's not my office," the first-year Trojans coach said. "I ultimately had to configure it a little bit different so it felt like my office and not his."

Kreuter doesn't feel nearly as awkward about taking the reins of a program that has won 12 national titles, though the Trojans have slipped from the national spotlight in recent seasons. USC hasn't made it to the College World Series since 2001 and finished last season with a losing record.

But Kreuter, a former major league catcher who last year served as manager of the Colorado Rockies' Class-A Modesto affiliate, possesses professional baseball experience that many of his coaching counterparts cannot match.

"Everybody here is very technically sound as far as their teaching," Kreuter said last month at a media event for Southern California college baseball coaches, "but I think from my experience, I have a lot of the mental side of baseball that I can pass on to the players."

Kreuter has two of the nation's top freshmen in catcher-pitcher Robert Stock and shortstop Grant Green. Stock probably would have been a first-round selection in the June amateur draft had he not graduated a year early from Agoura High to join the Trojans, and Green is a player who Kreuter says has the potential of former Long Beach State standout Troy Tulowitzki.

The Trojans, ranked No. 25 by Collegiate Baseball, are so deep that Kreuter was able to convince four players who he said "would be starters at most places" to attend USC as walk-ons. Two of them, outfielder Nick Buss and first baseman Derek Perren, are starters.

One Southland coach assured of going to Omaha this year is Cal State Fullerton's George Horton, though he conceded that's only because he's on a coaching committee that is required to report to the annual site of the College World Series.

Although the Titans reached baseball's biggest stage in 2006, Horton said he doesn't recall going into a season having lost so much talent to graduation. The Titans also lost junior outfielder Jared Clark for the season because of knee surgery and highly touted freshman infielder Nate Bridges because of academic ineligibility.

Even All-American junior right-hander Wes Roemer and senior third baseman Evan McArthur aren't fully sound. Roemer is recovering from a strained pinkie tendon and McArthur is questionable for tonight's opener against Stanford because of a sprained wrist.

The mood became so glum in practice that Horton took a copy of the Baseball America preseason poll -- the Titans are ranked No. 14 -- onto the field to remind his players that others think highly of them. Horton counts himself in that group.

"We think we're going to get there," he said, "we just don't know if it's going to be too late by the time we arrive."

By contrast, UCLA didn't have to wait to generate an early buzz. The Bruins, ranked No. 13 by Baseball America, are considered one of the nation's top young teams after starting six freshmen at the Pepperdine regional last year.

Coach John Savage likes his team's blend of speed and power but said pitching depth is a concern. Senior right-hander Tyson Brummett is expected to be the ace and freshman right-hander Charles Brewer could move into the No. 2 spot. Junior right-hander Brant Rustich will be the closer after missing last season because of a finger injury.

Pitching should be a strength for Pepperdine, which returns West Coast Conference co-pitcher of the year Barry Enright and closer Brett Hunter, a preseason Collegiate Baseball All-American. The Waves are ranked No. 19 by Baseball America.

Long Beach State is seeking a bounce-back season after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2000. The 49ers finished second in the Big West Conference but were leapfrogged by UC Irvine, the only conference team to advance to an NCAA regional besides Fullerton.

Irvine should be a contender again too, with right-hander Scott Gorgen, the Big West freshman of the year in 2006, anchoring a pitching staff that includes closer Blair Erickson.

UC Riverside also has high hopes in the wake of a disappointing season in which it clung to postseason hopes before losing four of its last five games. The Highlanders have such pitching depth that they were able to move accomplished starter Taylor Bills into the bullpen.

Coach Doug Smith said the goal is to improve consistency after a mostly win-one-lose-one approach en route to last season's 29-25 finish.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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