Former Tulane baseball coach Rick Jones used to love the phrase, “momentum lasts only until the next day’s starting pitcher.”
Coming off a surprising 2-0 home loss to Nicholls State, the Green Wave can benefit from that analysis heading into a pivotal series at white-hot Houston. A game-and-a-half in front of East Carolina at the top of the American Athletic Conference, Tulane (35-16, 13-6) needs two victories to guarantee its first regular season championship since 2005, when Jones earned his fourth title in nine years.
It won’t be easy.
Houston (32-20, 10-10) the preseason AAC favorite, has won seven of its past eight games after scuffling for most of the year. The Cougars allowed a total of eight runs in the first seven and blasted Rice 24-6 on Tuesday while Tulane was getting shut out for the first time.
The torrid stretch includes a 10-0 win against Rice, a 3-2 victory against Louisiana-Lafayette and a series win at Cincinnati, the only team to take a series from Tulane.
Houston will start preseason AAC pitcher of the year Seth Romero (5-4, 2.37 ERA) on Thursday in a game moved to 3 p.m. from 6:30 because approaching bad weather.
Tulane will counter with Emerson Gibbs (6-2, 2.33), who tossed a three-hitter over eight innings while beating Memphis 1-0 last Friday.
“They (the Cougars) are hot, they’re desperate and they’re confident,” Tulane coach David Pierce said. “They are playing with a sense of urgency knowing they have to do well to have any aspirations of an at-large bid and not just be completely dependent on a conference tournament championship. But I definitely like having the opportunity with Emerson Gibbs on the mound.”
Gibbs struggled against Houston three weeks ago at Turchin Stadium, giving up season highs for hits (nine) and runs (six) in the midst of final exams. He has passed just about every other test in the AAC, though, allowing zero earned runs in four of his seven starters.
“We can’t go in trying to do anything more than what we’ve been doing all season,” Gibbs said. “In the back of your head it’s there that this game might be a little bit more important than every other game, but it still is the next game really. Nothing really changes. You still have to command the strike zone, play good defense and get timely hits.”
Although Tulane has scored one or no runs in three of its past four games, the Wave still averages an AAC-best 6.1 runs with a league-high 53 homers. Designated hitter Jeremy Montalbano was inches away from a tying home run against Nicholls State, and first baseman Jeremy Montalbano came up about a foot short.
“We’re focused day in and day out,” Montalbano said. “In a 56-game period the odds of getting shut out once are going to happen, so that was that night. We just have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The key is not letting the pressure get to them. No one on the roster has sniffed a championship before this season.
“It really is just about relaxing,” said second baseman Jake Willsey, who hit a team-best .444 in the last 10 games before going 0 for 3 on Tuesday. “You can’t let your talent come through if you’re not relaxed at the plate. If we can find a way to do that, then we’ll be just fine this weekend. We’re a good offensive team, and we’ll progress back to our norm.”
In a weird way, facing Romero could help Tulane, which scored five runs in 4.1 innings against him at Turchin Stadium. His fastball is in the low-to-mid 90s (miles per hour), and the Wave struggled against the off-speed stuff of Memphis last weekend and Nicholls State.
“Our offense tends to do much better against (high velocity) guys,” for whatever reason,” Willsey said. “That definitely bodes well for us going into a series with a team like Houston.”
The Cougars’ projected starter for Friday, Mitch Ullom (6-2, 2.12), has pitched back-to-back complete-game victories, allowing two runs in 18 innings. He will oppose Ross Massey (8-3, 2.33) in a matchup of freshmen who pitch to contact.
Depending on what happens Thursday, the Wave could have an opportunity to clinch by then.
“Of course it’s on our mind,” Willsey said. “We want to be the type of team that brings this program back to College World Series prominence. That would be a big first step getting there.”
The games on Friday (7 p.m.) and Saturday (3 p.m.) will be televised nationally by CBS Sports Network. … Houston’s normal Friday ace, Andrew Lantrip, pitched 1.2 scoreless innings in relief to get the victory against Rice after missing his previous start due to arm soreness. Pierce said he would not be surprised to see Lantrip return to the rotation on Saturday. … Tulane’s starting left fielder on Thursday will be either Grant Brown or Cade Edwards. Pierce has ruled out lefty batters Richard Carthon and Jarrett DeHart against the left-handed Romero. The Wave is 0 for 15 at that spot in the last four games, and the foursome is a collective 12 for 75 (.160) in conference play.