Green Wave hopes hitting comes alive for Oxford regional _lowres

Advocate file photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ -- Tulane's Jake Willsey

Jake Willsey bristled Monday when he was asked about the Tulane baseball team’s struggles at the plate heading into regional play.

He understands the disappointment that the Green Wave managed only five runs in two losses to Houston at the American Athletic Conference tournament. He just doesn’t see any long-term trend in the lack of offensive production in Clearwater, Florida, that would prevent second-seeded Tulane (39-19) from winning the Oxford, Mississippi, regional.

“It’s not really something we’re particularly worried about,” said Willsey, who went 0-for-4 against Houston but hit his 10th home run at the AAC tournament, joining teammates Hunter Hope and Jeremy Montalbano in double figures for the year. “We faced everybody’s ace. We were not able to knock their aces around like we wanted to, but we’ve beaten good pitchers in the past, and we’re definitely up for the challenge.

“Everybody here on the team knows we’re a good offensive team, whether the fans know it or not.”

Different numbers support both sides of the argument.

No projected starter for Friday’s regional opener against Boston College bats below .260, reflecting the balance coach David Pierce has lauded all season. Tulane averages 5.9 runs, the second-highest total in the AAC behind Connecticut. The Wave’s 60 home runs — tied for the 21st most in college baseball — are more than its total of 49 for the previous three years combined.

Before struggling at the AAC tournament, Tulane scored 6, 10 and 8 runs in games spanning two series against Houston, which boasts the second-lowest ERA in the nation.

“People forget that very quickly,” Willsey said. “I think our offense is going to be just fine going into the regional. We put some good swings on balls against Houston, and they made two or three diving plays against us.”

Still, the bats have gone silent multiple times in the second half of the season. Tulane hit a robust .290 through its first 24 games, a stretch that ended with its final nonconference weekend series in late March.

Since then, the Wave has hit .249, scored three or fewer runs in seven of its past 11 contests and managed more than five runs only eight times in 30 games. First baseman Hunter Williams is hitting .343 in conference play, but everyone else has endured at least one lengthy slump. Shortstop Stephen Alemais, second on the list, is well back at .286.

For the year, Alemais is hitting .318, but Willsey is next at .281.

By comparison, Oxford regional No. 4 seed Utah has four hitters above .300. Top seed Ole Miss has three, and No. 3 seed Boston College has two.

Nicholls State’s unheralded trio of Zach Thiac, Robbie Petty and Adam Tarver combined on a six-hit shutout of Tulane on May 17. Memphis, with an ACC-worst ERA of 5.04, held the Wave to one run in each of the first two games of a series at Turchin Stadium.

“We need to relax and just have quality at-bats and get back to what we know,” right fielder Lex Kaplan said. “We’ve faced some good pitching, and we’re going to be facing more good pitching against Boston College.”

Third baseman Hunter Hope is the embodiment of Tulane’s strengths and weaknesses at the plate. He has a team-high 13 home runs and an impressive .512 slugging percentage, but his 79 strikeouts broke the school record he set a year ago.

The Wave’s 484 whiffs are 19 more than the previous team high of 465, also established last season.

“We can hit,” Pierce said. “We just have to go to home plate with a little more confidence and really understand our strengths versus our weaknesses. We can’t hit the fastball up and in or chase breaking balls. We have to be a little more disciplined more than anything and not try to do it all ourselves when we’re in that moment of truth.”

The task won’t be easy against Boston College, which will use hard-throwing junior right-hander Justin Dunn (3-1, 1.35 ERA) on Friday. Dunn, considered a potential first-round draft pick, spent the first half of the year in the bullpen before entering the rotation, allowing five earned runs over 37 innings covering six starts.

“This year, we’ve had success with the long ball, but once you get to the regionals it’s all about doing the little things right,” left fielder Richard Carthon said. “If we have a guy on third or in scoring position with one out or less, we have to put the ball in play. A lot of guys are buying into, OK, I don’t have to put it out. I just have to put it in play.”

Lagniappe

As expected, Pierce said Tuesday that normal Friday guy Emerson Gibbs would start against Boston College. … The Wave will head to Oxford on Wednesday and practice at Ole Miss’s Swayze Field on Thursday before facing Boston College at 3 p.m. Friday.