J.P. France’s shoulders sagged when the bouncer got by him and headed toward center field. Pitching with a 5-0 lead against LSU, he thought he had just given up a two-run single with the bases loaded.
Shortstop Stephen Alemais had other ideas. Ranging far to his left, he fielded the ball on his knees and, while tumbling over, made a nifty, no-look, backhand flip to second baseman Jake Willsey, starting an spectacular inning-ending double play.
Alemais’ fourth-inning wizardry was the signature moment as Tulane snapped an eight-game losing streak to LSU at Alex Box Stadium with an emphatic 7-1 victory on Tuesday night. The play was No. 1 on the ESPN “SportsCenter” Top 10 highlights, a rare feat for a college baseball game, and the Green Wave rolled over the Tigers the rest of the way.
“It was probably the most hyped I’ve seen the team get this year,” Alemais said. “It was the most emotion I’ve showed. We really wanted to win this game, and I was just out there making plays.”
The whole team did, making the win feel even better than a random victory against LSU. France pitched six shutout innings while Tulane (18-7) turned two double plays, made zero errors and took advantage of every Tigers mistake to win its fifth in a row heading into its American Athletic Conference series opener at Connecticut this weekend.
“It’s a great RPI win, a great road win and a great win for Tulane,” coach David Pierce said. “The kids are playing well, they are playing with confidence and they are playing for each other right now.”
No one on Tulane’s roster had experienced a victory against LSU in Baton Rouge, but there was no huge celebration when reliever Jeremy Montalbano struck out Bryce Adams to end the game. The self belief and swagger for a veteran team that is pitching, hitting and fielding well has grown exponentially since the start of the year.
“Momentum’s a real thing,” Willsey said. “I don’t see any reason why we’re going to stop. We haven’t really shown any signs of slowing down right now. All facets of the game have just been dominant the last couple weeks.”
Alemais’ willingness even to try the backhand flip illustrated Tulane’s complete confidence. If it had gone awry, the Tigers would have scored at least one run and had the tying run at the plate. Instead, the inning was over after a bang-bang play at first, and Tulane’s players danced backed to the dugout.
“If I had turned around and tried to flip it the other way, it was going to take too much time,” he said. “I caught it behind my back toward center field and just threw it behind me hoping that Jake would grab it. When I saw him grab it, I knew it would be a double play.”
France, a redshirt sophomore, could not believe his eyes.
“That’s probably the only time since I’ve been going to Tulane that I showed emotion on the mound,” he said. “When I saw it go past me, I was like, ‘Oh, man.’ Then he ended up diving for it and getting it. I got pumped up. It was crazy.”
Willsey was less surprised.
“I know Stephen’s the best shortstop in the country, so I knew he was getting there,” he said. “The flip was off the charts, right where it need to be. We’ve been doing this for three years now. We work together as well as anybody up the middle.”
After Alemais’ play, the final five innings were almost a foregone conclusion. He continued to flash his full range of defensive skills, racing to his right to field a ball on the outfield grass before firing to first for an out and chasing down a pop fly in left-center that few infielders would reach.
The significance of winning at Alex Box in front of an announced crowd of 10,851 was not lost on anyone.
“This atmosphere is unbelievable,” France said. “The first time I got on the mound, it was nothing like I’ve experienced before.”