CLEARWATER, Fla. — Lex Kaplan chose the perfect time to come out of a hitting slump.
Batting a paltry .162 in his last 10 games, Kaplan blasted a home run in the bottom of the first inning and added an insurance homer in the eighth as third-seed Tulane beat No. 6 Connecticut 3-1 in its American Athletic Conference tournament opener Wednesday at Bright House Field.
The Green Wave (34-21) moved closer to sealing its first NCAA regional bid in seven years, and it came courtesy of the first multi-homer game for a Tulane player this season. UConn (33-24) lost its fourth straight.
“I got two pitches I could drive and I put good swings on them,” Kaplan said. “I just came in here today, relaxed and felt like I was starting over. I had to help the team out. We’ve just got to keep winning. Nothing’s locked in for us. Hopefully we can come out her and just win the tournament and have no questions.”
The Wave continued its late-season surge that saw it rise from last place in the AAC to a tie for third by winning four of its last five series, frequently getting contributions from unlikely sources. Saturday, it was first baseman Garrett Deschamp breaking out of a season-long funk with five RBIs in a doubleheader sweep of Memphis.
This time it was Kaplan, a sophomore who had not hit a home run since April 25, tattooing an offering from surprise UConn starter Andrew Zapata to provide an immediate jolt.
His first home run landed near the top of a grassy knoll well behind the wall in right field. His second one, though not hit as well, went out down the right field line, providing an insurance run as Tulane advanced to a winner’s bracket game against No. 2 seed East Carolina at 6 p.m. Thursday.
“He probably had as good at-bats against Memphis as anybody but just nothing to show for it,” Tulane coach David Pierce said.
“We had confidence in keeping him in there, and look what he did today.”
Tulane also benefitted from Pierce’s decision to go with normal midweek starter Patrick Duester, a native of Titusville, Florida, about 150 miles from Clearwater. Duester (7-5), starting for just the second time against an AAC opponent, pitched a season-best seven innings getting out of bases-loaded, one-out jams in the second and third in front of several family members and friends.
“We’ve got four very good starters,” Pierce said. “He was the freshest.”
UConn coach Jim Penders did not fare as well as with his unconventional choice of Zapata (5-1), who had not pitched in an AAC game, instead of AAC Pitcher of the Year Carson Cross, who tossed seven shutout innings in a 6-0 victory against Tulane on March 27.
Zapata surrendered six hits and two runs in four innings — Kaplan’s bomb plus an RBI single from Stephen Alemais in the third that gave the Wave the lead for good.
“They could have thrown anybody and we would have had good at-bats and done just as well,” said Kaplan, who went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts the time he faced Cross.
Tulane capped the win in style, with Ian Gibaut blowing a fastball by UConn leadoff hitter Jack Sundberg for a strikeout to finish a nearly flawless two-inning stint for his ninth save.
Staff ace Corey Merrill, pitching on his regular six-days rest, will start against East Carolina as the Wave seeks another pivotal victory.
“Coach (Pierce) gave us a motivational speech right now,” Duester said. “He said ‘You guys are not guaranteed.’ We’re coming into this tournament to win it.”