NEW ORLEANS — No one expected junior Nick DiMaggio to hit as well as he has since entering Tulane’s baseball lineup two weeks ago. Not even DiMaggio.
A walk-on who had four at-bats in his first two years with the Green Wave, he was an afterthought for most of this season, too. Through 40 games, he started twice. Suddenly, though, he is on an eight-game hitting streak, batting second in the order and providing a desperately needed boost for a team beginning to snap out of its year-long funk at the plate.
“I’m really surprised,” said DiMaggio, who has been used primarily at designated hitter. “It’s been a lot of fun showing up to the ballpark knowing you’re going to get some at-bats and help the team. I’m just a little more confident than at the beginning of the year.”
DiMaggio had key hits last Saturday as Tulane scored four in the fourth and two in the seventh of a 6-3 win against Houston at Turchin Stadium. This Tuesday, he had a hit and two RBIs to help the Green Wave beat Nicholls State 8-7.
Tulane (25-24, 8-10 Conference USA), which is hitting worse and scoring fewer runs than at any time in coach Rick Jones’ 20-year tenure, likely will need the same production from DiMaggio in its three-game series at UCF (27-22 11-7) starting Friday. Staff ace Tony Rizzotti will not pitch after being pulled with tightness in his lower back against Houston a week ago.
DiMaggio is hitting .333 in his last six games — all starts — and is one percentage point off the team lead with an average of .295. That’s doubly impressive for a guy who tried to walk on at LSU in 2010 and did not survive the first cut, then transferred to Tulane and practiced with the team for a week before learning he had made the roster.
“I coach with an open mind, but for 21/2 years, Nick might get one hit a week in an intrasquad (game),” Jones said. “He was never anyone you would put in as a factor. Then last month, in a simulated game when we had the weekend off, he had three hits. I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to give this guy a shot.’ He’s made the most of it. It’s made a difference in our offense.”
DiMaggio’s hits have not been an assortment of bleeders and bloops. He has ripped line drives.
“He’s one of those guys you cheer for,” said freshman Richard Carthon, who scored three runs batting in front of DiMaggio against Nicholls State. “From being a walk-on and finally getting his chance and performing the way he’s done, it’s been great seeing his success.”
Tulane, which is seventh in the league standings, can lock up a spot in the Conference USA tournament this weekend with any combination of its own wins or losses by last-place UAB adding up to three. The Green Wave’s next win will give Jones 800 at Tulane, putting him in a group of 15 active coaches with that many victories at their current school.
With Rizzotti (5-4, 2.20 ERA) unavailable, normal Saturday and Sunday starters Alex Byo (3-4, 2.89 ERA) and David Napoli (4-2, 1.08 ERA) will move up a day, with Randy LeBlanc (4-3, 4.66 ERA) pitching Sunday for his first conference start of the season.
Rizzotti’s return date has not been determined.
“I’d feel a lot better if Tony Rizzotti was healthy,” Jones said. “I’d feel a lot better if they can tell me he can pitch next week against UAB and be ready for the conference tournament.”
Despite its year-long struggles, Tulane has reason for confidence. LeBlanc has allowed only seven runs in 23 innings in his last four midweek starts, including three scoreless innings against Nicholls State. The Green Wave turned five double plays on Tuesday, its most this century.
With DiMaggio providing a welcome lift, Tulane’s batting average of .294 in its last six games is far above its paltry season mark of .240.
“We’ve been pitching good the whole year and playing really good defense,” DiMaggio said. “If we continue hitting, we definitely have a chance to win the tournament.”