Traditional power USC might just be on its way to finally turning the corner.
The Trojans are known as one of the nation's most historic baseball programs, leading the nation with an astonishing 12 national titles, most of them won during the Rod Dedeaux era.
But recently, USC hasn't been a program known for winning championships or even competing for NCAA postseason appearances. It has been a program filled with a nasty rash of disappointing campaigns.
That's precisely the trend Cruz is trying to change sooner rather than later.
Serving as interim head coach last season, Cruz's Trojans had their fair share of struggles. They went 25-31 overall and failed to be a real player in the Pac-10 Conference title race.
Things have changed for the better a year later. The Trojans still have unfinished business and are work in progress, but are making significant strides. The offense has increased its batting average 30 points from last season, the pitching staff is better with more quality depth, and the team record has improved, the Trojans sitting 19-11 so far this season with a solid RPI.
With another important Pac-12 series coming up this weekend against Arizona State, Cruz took us inside his program with our latest Q & A session.
You obviously spent last season with the interim tag as head coach. Now, you're a full-time head coach for the Trojans. Does it feel any different?
CRUZ: It honestly doesn't feel any different right now. Last year, just having an opportunity to take charge of this program on an interim basis, it really allowed me to connect with the players in this program, so it has been a very smooth transition. They're used to me and I'm used to them. I'm just fortunate that a lot of our players decided to come back for another campaign. They knew what to expect, and quite frankly, we've had very good leadership from some of the older players in this program.
Looking back at USC's decision to keep you on as head coach, did you have a feeling throughout last season that it would happen?
CRUZ: You know, not really. Thinking about it the entire season really wasn't me. I'm just used to the old saying of don't count the days, just makes the days count, and that's the way I handled the situation. I always tell the players to handle things that way, and that's what I was trying to do. I didn't really look ahead, as I thought if I looked ahead, I'd really be hypocritical in what I was trying to teach these players. I looked at things that way, not really in a am I or am I not going to get this job. I just kind of let the pieces fall into place.
The USC offense finished last season with a tough .274 batting average. So far this season, you're hitting .303 as a team. What has been the difference?
CRUZ: I think the big thing right now is that several guys have come to the forefront of things recently. We haven't been as good with runners on base as I'd like to be, but honestly, that's kind of the theme with a lot of teams around the country right now. Matt Foat and Kevin Roundtree have really stepped things up offensively, while we have a lot of faith in Jake Hernandez, too. They're more experienced hitters now and they've done a lot better. We've really put together some nice at bats this spring. With that said, we have lost some closes games, so we still have to get better at bats. We did a little better job of hitting with runners in scoring position last weekend (against California).
Matt Foat has been one of your big surprises this season, hitting .411 with two home runs and 19 RBIs. What has been the big key for him?
CRUZ: First and foremost, I think Matt has a really solid approach at the plate. He's really balanced and he's doing what it takes -- he's committed -- to becoming a good hitter. He's committed to his approach and he's very successful in carrying it out. He doesn't waiver too often at the plate. He doesn't just hit a double or strikeout, he has a lot of options out there. He has really increased his bat speed since last season. I'd actually say he has tremendous bat speed right now.
The pitching staff, and very much so the bullpen, has been solid so far this season. How would you assess that unit at this point in the year?
CRUZ: The pitching staff. I think the pitching staff has been really good. We haven't lost many conference games by more than two runs. The fact is, the pitching staff has really kept us in a lot of games this season. I think they've put us in some good situations. We held a good-hitting California team to not many hits last weekend, and that was impressive to me. They've really done a nice job. I couldn't be much happier about this unit.
Freshman left-handed starting pitcher Stephen Tarpley has a 2.72 ERA in 43 innings pitched. What has made him so successful so early?
CRUZ: You know, it's funny, because I think Tarpley could be a lot better. The way I would describe him and his success, I'd say he's a fierce competitor who absolutely loves competing at the highest levels. He has good velocity on his fastball. He's been sitting consistently 88-91 with his fastball, touching some 92s at times. He also has a good breaking ball that he can get left-handed hitters out with on a consistent basis. He's working to get more right-handers out, but for the most part, he's done a pretty good job with both ends of it. He's just one of those guys that competes, competes, and competes some more.
What do you like most, and what are you most concerned about at this stage in the season?
CRUZ: We need to shore up our middle infield a little bit. We've moved James Roberts from shortstop to second base and Adam Landecker from second base to shortstop. We really wanted James to get out there and relax a little bit. We have ever intention of getting those two guys back to their normal positions, though. We need James to continue gaining confidence both offensively and defensively for us to be successful. He's a really, really good player, but he just needs to relax himself. As a team, I'd like to be much better at scoring runs with less than two outs. We have to be much better in that regard moving forward. The pitching staff is going to keep us in games, so we just need to do what we need to do to get some runs home.
Knowing that you were taking over a rebuilding job. Does it surprise you at all the Trojans are in position to make the postseason headed down the stretch?
CRUZ: No, not too much. The Pac-12 is incredibly strong and the country as a whole is pretty equal right now. I think there's a lot of parity right now, so it doesn't surprise me when anyone wins. I don't think there's really a such thing as a huge upset in college baseball right now, no matter who you're playing. Anyone can beat you any day in this sport, and I tell our team each day to be ready to play no matter the opponent. It's a lot of fun in that respect, but I do wish we were a little ahead of the game this season. We had 10 losses entering the week and many of those games could've gone either way. We also could be 12-0 or 0-12 in the Pac-12 with how close some of our games have been. That's just how equal everything is right now. I like this group, though. This group has a lot of camaraderie and they never give up, as illustrated by four walk-off wins so far this spring. It's a testament to their character for sure. I like the way our guys are playing and competing right now.
Shifting gears from the actual team to some potential future Trojans. What are your thoughts on the recruiting class you assembled in the fall?
CRUZ: The sheer amount of pitching depth is something we really like about our 2012 recruiting class. There's a lot of quality depth in that class, and we feel like we'll get a vast majority of them to come to college. Kyle Twomey is a really thin kid, but has a ton of upside as a pitcher. Chase DeJong is emerging with his breaking ball and changeup right now. Shane Watson slider is considered to be one of the better ones on the national stage, and we also feel pretty good about Brent Wheatley and Brooks Kriske. There's a lot of strong pitching in that group, so we need to find a way to get some of them on campus. There are two big-time guys out here in California, then these guys are some of the headliners in the next group. They seem to show a lot of commitment in wanting a strong education. UCLA and Stanford have done a good job in recent years of getting top prospects to go to college. We need to do the same.
The new Collective Bargaining Agreement has been a hot topic with college baseball head coaches. What are your thoughts on it, and it's effect on college baseball?
CRUZ: I'm not as well-versed on it as others in the industry, but it appears like it's a good thing for the sport. I really like the July 15 signing deadline. That's a good thing for college baseball, I know that to be a fact. I'm not sure about the other 10 rounds stuff or the salary bonus pool, but I can tell you that a lot of organizations out there are being cognizant about the salary bonus pool, while there will be those organizations that simply won't care and they'll do whatever they can to sign some guys. I think after this year, everyone in the collegiate and professional ranks will have a much better understanding about this thing.
If you had the power to change anything, what's the one thing you'd change about college baseball, and why?
CRUZ: I don't think I'd allow college coaches or recruiters to pursue a prospect until after he has finished the 10th grade (sophomore high school season). You can't have any communication with any high school player until after his sophomore campaign. Right now, you've got a situation where young players and families are delusional, where they're trying everything they can to get their kid a scholarship when he's in ninth grade (a freshman). I just think that's ridiculous. We as coaches should be able to evaluate them from the 10th grade and on, and still have a pretty good idea of what type of player he is. In my opinion, that'd really calm things down a lot. For example, we had three guys in our office this summer asking for scholarships ... these are two kids who hadn't even played a single varsity game yet. We said hey you're a good player, but let's see you competition against some of the elite high school players. I just think these kids should be allowed to play the game they love without thinking way ahead like that ... Something else I'd just change about college baseball is move to wooden bats. There are still some bats that perform better than others right now, so I think we need to go to wood to make a true even playing field. But honestly, I don't think that'll ever happen.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org