Christian Life vs Episcopal Baseball

Episcopal's Connor Pellerin makes a throw to first on a bunt in the first inning vs Christian Life on March 31, 2017.

Advocate photo: JONATHAN MAILHES

The best barometer for the Tulane baseball team's terrific opening weekend might have been the confidence junior Grant Witherspoon felt as he stood in center field.

A year ago, he watched the Green Wave control-deprived pitching staff give games away one ball at a time, waiting between outs for what felt like interminable stretches.

Tulane's season-opening sweep of Wright State had a totally different vibe.

"It's just more fun when you're in a one-run game and you have confidence in the guys on the mound," Witherspoon said. "Those guys looked great this weekend."

The only similarity between 2017 and 2018 was the identical score of Tulane's 4-3 opening-game victories. The Wave did not win again until March 3 last season, part of a dismal 2-12 stretch that featured 102 runs allowed, 89 walks, 24 wild pitches and 12 hit batters as the team ERA ballooned to 5.99.

This time, the Wave backed up its first victory with two more against Horizon League favorite Wright State, using 12 pitchers and getting generally good results. Eight of them were newcomers in a near total team makeover second-year coach Travis Jewett had to make after losing a large group of seniors he inherited.

They were not always a dandy dozen — Tulane allowed 13 runs, walked 16 batters and hit six more in 28 innings — but they gave the Wave a chance to win.

"I felt like that was the difference," Witherspoon said. "Those guys are the reason we are going to be good. We had a lot of young guys get in there."

Jewett already trusts the back end of his bullpen. Set-up man Connor Pellerin (1-0), a freshman from Baton Rouge Episcopal with a nasty curveball, struck out three and gave up only one hit over two appearances covering 2⅓ innings. Canadian closer Will McAffer, a transfer from Central Arizona College, worked scoreless final innings in the first and third games, earning a save in the opener.

The other stalwarts were Friday starter Kaleb Roper, who yielded four hits and one run in five innings, senior Sam Bjorngjeld, who pitched three scoreless innings in two stints, and junior Ross Massey, who shut down the Raiders over the final three innings on Saturday for his first win since 2016.

"There's room for improvement for sure, but for the most part guy guys were coming in there and doing their thing," Jewett said. "We had certain guys where maybe it wasn't going as well as we'd like, and they'd make a good pitch or get a double-play ball."

Clearly, Jewett will have plenty of pitching options heading into a tough series this weekend at ninth-ranked Ole Miss (3-0), which swept Big South favorite Winthrop at home.

Roper, McAffer and fellow JUCO imports Ryan Green and Trent Johnson all pitched for the first time, and so did Pellerin and fellow freshmen Brendan Cellucci and Josh Bates. An eighth newcomer, Holy Cross graduate transfer Ben White, started Saturday, joining holdovers Massey, Bjorngjeld, Chase Solesky and Sunday starter Keagan Gillies on the mound.

"If I don't go out there and pitch well, these (newcomers) are definitely going to take all my innings," Bjorngjeld said. "Last year you were going out there no matter what. This year the competition is making everyone play their best. We are going to see a lot of pitchers all year."

That's one huge reason Witherspoon was smiling Sunday. The Wave's pitchers never recovered from their horrid start a year ago, finishing with a 5.72 ERA that made it impossible to win consistently.

After three games, it's already hard to imagine a repeat of those issues.

"It's awesome," Witherspoon said. "The first weekend you can't ask for anything else. We got three games against a good opponent. I love this team already. It's early, but I love everybody on this team."

Follow Guerry Smith on Twitter, @guersmith