|| It was the 50th anniversary of USCs first-ever baseball crown, won in 1948;
USC has a near-monopoly on years ending in 8, winning titles in 1948, 1958, 1968, 1978 and now, 1998;
In 1948, USC won in baseball, Kentucky won in mens basketball and Michigan won in ice hockey, all for the first time. In 1998, Kentucky and Michigan won their respective titles early in the spring, so it was USCs turn a couple of months later.
But if you dont believe in fate, you had to believe in USCs talent, which featured an extraordinary group of players under the leadership of head coach Mike Gillespie.
Looking back, the turning point of USCs season may not have come during the season. It may have been during the summer of 1997, when junior righthand pitcher Seth Etherton was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the ninth round of the professional draft. Negotiations turned bad, and Etherton, to the surprise of everyone, elected to return for his senior year.
Etherton was nothing short of marvelous in 1998, earning The Sporting News National Player of the Year honors while going 13-3 with a 3.23 ERA. He set Pac-10 single-season (182) and career (420) records for strikeouts in the process. He also led the nation in strikeouts.
Finishing many of Ethertons games was senior righthander Jack Krawczyk, the best reliever in NCAA history, as he set records for saves in a season (23) and career (49).
Besides Etherton and Krawczyk, two other players earned All-American honors: sophomore catcher Eric Munson (.392, 16 home runs), who earned second team notice despite missing nearly a third of the season due to injury; and senior third baseman Morgan Ensberg (21 home runs, 20 stolen bases), who made the third team and became the first 20-20 player in USC history.
The Regular Season
The Trojans were ranked fifth and sixth in the 1998 preseason polls and began the season accordingly, winning 27 of their first 32 games, including three-game sweeps of future NCAA Tournament teams Long Beach State, North Carolina and Arizona State.
By March 30, USC was ranked No. 2 in the country, heading into a big week against Cal State Fullerton and top-ranked Stanford. Little went right for the Trojans, however, as they fell to the Titans, 7-4, and lost two out of three to the Cardinal.
One of those losses was called the game of the year by several national publications. On April 3, Etherton and Stanfords Jeff Austin both had shutouts going into the seventh inning. But in the top of the seventh, on perhaps the only bad pitch of the night, the Cardinal got a solo home run off of Etherton for the games only run. Despite striking out a career-high 15 batters and giving up only four hits and no walks in a complete game, Etherton was on the wrong end of a 1-0 score.
To make matters worse, after the Trojans defeated Hawaii Hilo on April 6 Munson was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his right foot and would miss nearly all of the remainder of the regular season. At the same time, senior catcher Jeff DePippo was out with torn cartilage in his rib area as a result of an off-the-field accident. That meant the Trojans would be going to Arizona State for three games without any experienced catchers. USC dropped all three games to the Sun Devils, then a midweek game to Loyola Marymount. USC had lost seven of its last nine games and was falling in the rankings.
DePippo was back behind the plate for a three-game series against California, though it would be Etherton (who else?) who turned USCs fortunes around. In the first game of the series against the Golden Bears on April 17, he pitched a no-hitter for 7-2/3 innings en route to an eight-inning, one-hit, 11-strikeout performance in a 10-0 victory.
USC swept Cal that weekend and began winning again. In the last weekend of Six-Pac play, the Trojans needed a three-game sweep in Palo Alto to win the title from the Cardinal.
It didnt happen, however, as Etherton and Austin met again in the first game and Stanford again came away with a victory,
4-2, and the Six-Pac crown. But, thanks to strong performances by freshman right-hander Rik Currier and junior righthander Mike Penney, the Trojans won the next two games, earning a split of the season series with Stanford. That effort helped propel USC, which had won 11 of its final 14 regular-season games, into the postseason.
The Trojans were sent to Clemson, S.C., for the East Regional of the NCAA Tournament, as the top seed ahead of the host Tigers. USC fought off a scrappy Fordham team in the first round but got pounded by Virginia Commonwealth in the second round and was one loss away from having its season end.
Though USC was second-guessed for not pitching Etherton in the first two games, the move paid off as he started against Clemson on the morning of May 23 and struck out a career-high-tying 15 in an 8-5 victory. Later that night, the Trojans beat South Alabama, 3-2, as Ensberg had a two-run double in the first inning and junior lefthander Jason Lane pitched 3-1/3 scoreless innings in relief to get the win.
That put USC back into the drivers seat, as South Alabama defeated VCU on Sunday morning for the right to play the Trojans again in the championship that same night. In the finale, Lane started on zero days rest and picked up the win again, while Krawczyk went 3-2/3 innings for the save. Munson, who had missed 16 games with his stress fracture, swung the bat at the East Regional like he hadnt missed any time at all, earning MVP honors after hitting .556 (10-for-18) with two home runs and eight RBIs.
USC was going back to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series for the second time in four years.
College World Series
When the CWS bracket came out, it looked a lot like USC had been invited to the Southeastern Conference tournament. In addition to top-seeded Florida and eighth-seeded Mississippi State, the fourth-seeded Trojans would take on fifth-seeded (and two-time defending national champion) LSU.
The clash with the Tigers took place on Saturday, May 30, in front of a national television audience on CBS. The Trojans surprised the Tigers by taking an early 3-0 lead. Then disaster struck, as LSUs big bats led to a CWS-record eight home runs, all in a span of four innings. The last homer tied the game, 10-10, in the eighth inning, and a bloop single to center field that scored two runs secured the win for LSU.
As was the case at the East Regional, USC was one loss away from elimination. Plus, it had been nearly 20 years since a team that lost its first game had come back to win the CWS.
The Trojans next game, on June 1, was against Florida, a surprise loser to Mississippi State. The game went back and forth, but a rare blown save by Krawczyk sent the game into extra innings, tied at 8-8. Then the most pivotal pitch of the season took place. The Gators had runners on first and second with two out in the 10th inning, with All-American Brad Wilkerson at the plate. Gillespie made the unorthodox move of intentionally walking Wilkerson to load the bases, putting the winning run 90 feet from home plate.
Floridas Casey Smith worked the count against Krawczyk to 3-2, with Troys season hanging in the balance on the next pitch. Smith swung at a change-up low in the strike zone and dribbled it back to Krawczyk, who threw to first for the third out. The Trojans went on to win, 12-10.
For the next three games, Trojan pitching dominated. First, Currier struck out 12 in eight innings to beat Mississippi State,
7-1, on June 2. That set up a rematch with LSU, though the Trojans would have to win twice in two days to advance to the national championship game.
Etherton, who had been drafted in the first round (18th overall) by the Anaheim Angels earlier in the week, got the call against LSU on June 4. Determined not to have another bad outing against the Tigers, he came through with 10 strikeouts in eight innings, allowing only six hits and three runs in a 5-4 win. Krawczyk pitched the ninth to get the save.
The two teams met again a day later, and this time it was Penney who shut down the Tigers. He went 7-2/3 innings, giving up eight hits and three runs while striking out five in a 7-3 victory. After playing five games in seven days, and staving off elimination, the Trojans were back in familiar territory: playing for the NCAA championship.
The Championship Game
It would be a familiar foe for the Trojans: Pac-10 rival Arizona State. The two teams had met three times previously in the championship game, with USC winning all three. But in 1998, the schools had split their six meetings.
To say that the championship game was incredible would be an understatement. Dozens and dozens of records were set or tied as the Trojans posted a 21-14 victory.
The game started very well for the Trojans, as senior second baseman Wes Rachels singled, junior outfielder Greg Hanoian walked and junior first baseman Robb Gorr slugged a three-run home run. USC scored five more runs in the top of the second as Rachels hit a three-run home run and Gorr knocked a solo shot to make it 8-0.
The Sun Devils didnt go away, scoring five runs of their own in the bottom of the second and pulling within one run, 9-8, after four innings.
USC took an 11-8 lead going to the top of the seventh. Like in the Florida game, another huge moment took place. Ensberg danced down the third-base line three times, bluffing like he was going to steal home. On a 1-2 count, he ran down the line again and kept going. He slid safely, just under the tag, for a rare steal of home. Rachels followed with a two-run single to make it 14-8. It was Rachels fifth hit of the day for a champion-ship-game record-setting seven RBIs.
ASU came back again, however, scoring five more runs in the bottom of the seventh to pull within one run at 14-13. The Trojans increased their lead to 16-13 on a two-run home run by Ticehurst in the top of the eighth. It went back to a two-run game after the Sun Devils added a solo home run in the bottom of the eighth, but Krawczyk came in to get the final two outs.
In the top of the ninth, USC finally put the game out of reach, scoring five times to make it 21-14 as Ensberg had an RBI double and Lane slugged a grand slam over the centerfield wall. It capped off an amazing series for Lane, who set CWS records for hits (15) and total bases (31) with an overall average of .517.
Krawczyk pitched a 1-2-3 final inning, getting the last out on a fly ball that settled into Jeff DePippos glove in left field.
Fittingly, Krawczyk set the NCAA records for single-season and career saves in the championship game.
Rachels was named Most Outstanding Player for his solid defense and record-setting championship-game performance. He was joined on the All-College World Series team by Munson, Gorr, Ticehurst, Lane and Krawczyk.