On a frustrating night when the Tulane baseball team had frittered away all of its scoring chances, Jeremy Montalbano crushed what appeared to a sure tying two-run homer as the ball left his bat in the bottom of the eighth inning.
The frustration reached a new level seconds later.
The ball hung up in the humidity, allowing Nicholls State center fielder Justin Holt to chase it down and make a spectacular catch as he jumped into the Capital One Bank advertisement on the wall in left-center, about 385 feet from home plate.
The Colonels celebrated as if they had won. Four outs later, they did, handing Tulane a 2-0 loss Tuesday night at Turchin Stadium in what might have been its final home game of the season.
The Green Wave placed a bid to be one of 16 NCAA regional hosts — but with its RPI dropping to 33rd, according to WarrenNolan.com, it will have to move up dramatically in the next two weeks to get a shot.
With a huge series at Houston looming this weekend, Tulane (35-16) could not take care of business against Nicholls State (23-30), suffering its first shutout of the season as the Colonels swept the home-and-home series for the first time since 1995.
Holt’s hellacious catch, which Tulane coach David Pierce labeled a “SportsCenter play,” was the biggest emotional blow.
“When I hit it, I thought it was gone,” Montalbano said. “But it wasn’t really the conditions for it. It was one of the best catches I’ve ever seen made when I hit a ball. There’s nothing you can really do about it.”
Pierce conducted a team meeting in the clubhouse before postgame interviews, trying to make sure his players flushed the disappointing loss immediately.
The Green Wave, on top of the American Athletic Conference by a game-and-a-half, can clinch its first regular-season title since 2005 by winning twice at Houston in a three-game series that starts Thursday.
The Cougars have won seven of their last eight and beat Rice 24-6 on Tuesday.
“The biggest thing is we’ve got to make the quick turnaround,” Pierce said when the Wave returned to the field. “We’ve got to get re-centered. We can’t start pointing fingers and feeling sorry for ourselves.”
Nicholls State — which needs to sweep UNO this weekend to give itself any chance to qualify for the Southland Conference tournament — enjoyed every moment of this one.
One fan began waving a broom when the Colonels went ahead, and Tulane security had to separate supporters of the two teams in the latter innings.
Holt’s catch ratcheted up the intensity even more. It was unclear if Montalbano’s drive would have gone over the wall or hit near the top, but no one expected it to turn into an out.
“That gave us a ton of energy,” Colonels coach Seth Thibodeaux said. “I had a feeling that Montalbano was trying to get one out, and that’s what the situation called for. He did what he was supposed to do, but then I saw Justin slow his bead a little bit and he climbed the wall right into the baseball. It was a fun play to watch for sure.”
Tulane had no fun against Nicholls State’s pitching in either game this year, managing one run in 18 innings against a team with an ERA of 5.07. The Green Wave went 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position Tuesday, failing to capitalize on a second-and-third situation with one out in the fourth and stranding Montalbano at second after his leadoff double in the sixth.
The last failure, when Hunter Hope was called out on a bang-bang play at first after hitting a slow roller to third base in the eighth, resulted in a prolonged discussion between Pierce and first base umpire Mark Chapman. Pierce avoided being tossed for the second consecutive game.
Nicholls State senior starter Zach Thiac, a Rummel graduate, nearly matched the career-long six innings he pitched against Tulane as a freshman, going 5.1 scoreless innings. Adam Tarver (2-1), who entered with a team-worst 8.39 ERA, replaced Thiac and allowed one hit over three innings. Robbie Petty got the final two outs for his second save.
Defensive lapses cost the Wave as the Colonels scored their two runs in the seventh. Shortstop Stephen Alemais dropped the ball as he was applying the tag off a laser throw from right fielder Lex Kaplan from a ball that went to the wall, turning what would have been a spectacular out into a leadoff double by Kyle Knauth.
After a perfect bunt single put runners on first and third, third baseman Hunter Hope let a back pick attempt by catcher Cameron Burns glance off his glove and head into left field, allowing Knauth to score.
“The bottom line is that Nicholls State played a very good game,” Pierce said. “It was a well-played game. I made a mistake on the call at third base with our backup catcher, and it bit us.”
The Colonels added a second run on a wild pitch from J.P. France (5-2), who allowed one earned run in 6.2 innings while tying a career high with nine strikeouts.
“It was a pitching battle today, and they got the good end of the stick and we didn’t,” France said. “We didn’t have any clutch hits today. It’s a tough loss, but we have to bounce back and win two on Houston this weekend.”
Tulane, which has relied on the long ball for the bulk of its offense recently, could not hit one out of the park. Hunter Williams hit a deep fly to right that was caught at the base of the wall.
The task won’t get any easier at Houston, which is second nationally in ERA.
“We really talk about a philosophy of being able to score multiple ways, and we’ve been a little bit one-dimensional,” Pierce said. “We’ve got to get locked in and work out tomorrow and understand that because we’re going to face some very good pitching.”