Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Tulane starting pitcher Corey Merrill (21) pitches against Lehigh during the NCAA Division I Baton Rouge Baseball Regional, Saturday, May 30, 2015, at LSU's Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field.

HILARY SCHEINUK

After sweeping Connecticut at home to take the American Athletic Conference lead, the surging Tulane baseball team can validate its position with a series win at Houston this weekend.

The 23rd-ranked Cougars (25-11, 6-3), a game behind the Green Wave (19-19, 7-2), are formidable even without ace Seth Romero, a projected first-round Major League draft pick who was suspended indefinitely earlier this month for multiple violations of university and athletic department policy. Houston ranks third in the league in hitting (.293) and pitching (2.86 ERA) behind shortstop Jake Scheiner (.404 batting average, league-leading 12 home runs) and sophomore Trey Cumbie (6-0, league-low 1.40 ERA).

Tulane counters with the self-belief that comes from winning 16 of its last 23 games.

“Houston’s a great team, but we’re feeling really good right now,” said senior third baseman Hunter Hope, whose grand slam provided the difference in Wednesday’s 10-8 victory against Southern Miss. “We’re confident.”

The Wave is returning to the venue where it clinched it first conference championship in 11 years with a nerve-wracking 4-3 victory on the final day of the 2016 regular season that included a three-and-a-half hour rain delay in the sixth inning.

Tulane will pitch Corey Merrill on Friday and J.P. France on Saturday, but Sunday’s plan is up in the air after two midweek games taxed the staff. Jewett mentioned Sam Bjorngjeld, who threw 79 pitches against Southern Miss, and Ross Massey, who threw 88 pitches on Tuesday against Louisiana-Lafayette, as possibilities along with freshmen Chase Solesky and Keagan Gillies, who were used in relief.

 “If we can get the two donkeys (Merrill and France) to do their thing on Friday and Saturday and limit the bullpen a little bit, I would feel good about those guys on a Sunday,” Travis Jewett said. “We’ll maybe split thing up into some thirds. We’ll have to see how guys feel when we work out at Houston.”

This is the first of two series between the often-testy rivals. Tulane hosts Houston May 12-14.

Colletti closing

For the third time in four games, pitcher Christian Colletti excelled in a pressure situation against Southern Miss.

Colletti, a redshirt junior, got the final five outs for his fifth save after the Golden Eagles cut a 10-3 deficit to 10-8. Last week, he hurled five scoreless innings in a pair of victories against Connecticut.

Since earning his first save on March 24 against Stetson, he has allowed one earned run in 14.2 innings covering nine appearances.

Tulane’s closer role was a huge issue in the first month of the season when Jewett tried Ted Andrews, Brandon Issa, Gillies and even outfielder Grant Witherspoon. Consider the competition closed.

“He (Colletti)’s kind of the last man standing,” Jewett said. “It’s him to finish probably regardless of the situation. I like his look. He has some tenacity to him, and he’s doing a heck of a job for us.”

Slam time

When Hope crushed his grand slam on Wednesday, it brought back old memories.

Three years ago, he hit a grand slam against Wichita State as Tulane rallied for five runs in the bottom of the 12th inning to win 5-1. Just as in the Southern Miss game, it was his only hit in five at-bats.

“It’s been a long time since I had one of those,” he said. “My last one was a walk-off, so that one was special, but it’s always nice to get another one.”

Lagniappe

The start times for the Houston series are 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday. … Tulane’s statistics are not indicative of its first-place standing. The Wave is sixth out of eight AAC teams in runs (203) and last in pitching (5.05 ERA), a product of the 3-12 beginning. … First baseman Hunter Williams leads the AAC with 57 hits and is fourth in batting average at .358. … If Houston does not reinstate Romero, the strikeout-prone Wave will avoid facing a pitcher with 76 strikeouts in 44.1 innings, the best ratio in the nation. The Cougars have gone with Mitch Ullom (5-2, 3.50) and John King (4-1, 3.46) as their final two starters the past two weekends.