After doing nothing offensively for eight innings against East Carolina, the Tulane baseball team did it all in the bottom of the ninth.
Hunter Williams drilled a walk-of three-run home run over the right field wall as the Green Wave rallied for five runs in a dramatic 5-2 victory on Friday night in the opener of a pivotal American Athletic Conference series.
It was Williams’ first start since suffering a hand injury in the fifth game of the season. After leading the team in RBIs last season, he began the year 0 for 13 before getting his first two hits on Friday.
The second one was a wee bit bigger than the first, sending every player in the dugout to home plate to mob him when he finished rounding the bases. Coming off an emotional 7-6 loss to Southeastern Louisiana on Tuesday, the Wave bounced back at the last possible moment.
“I've been sitting over there for five weeks just wanting to get back out on the field and help the team win and do whatever I can,” Williams said. “It felt really good.”
The comeback came from nowhere after East Carolina starter Evan Kruczynski struck out 13 and allowed only three hits through eight innings.
Jake Rogers was hit by a pitch and Grant Witherspoon singled past first baseman Kirk Morgan to chase Kruczynski. Hunter Hope walked to load the bases again ace reliever Joe Ingle before shortstop Turner Brown threw away a bouncing grounder from Lex Kaplan, allowing the tying run to score.
The excitement did not end there. Hope was thrown out trying to score on a pitch that got behind catcher Travis Watkins, and Jeremy Montalbano was called back from first base after a long discussion between the umpires and East Carolina coach Cliff Godwin when the home plate umpire mistakenly awarded him a walk on ball three.
Montalbano walked on the next pitch anyway, Jake Willsey struck out and Williams ended it seconds later.
"We were just taking quality at bats, taking the pitches that you can't hit and then taking good swings on the mistakes that they made,” Williams said. “He (Kruczynski) pitched a heck of a game and we battled. Finally in the ninth, we found a way to get around the game and pull out a win."
Tulane (20-9, 2-1 AAC) avoided consecutive losses for the first time since February 28-March 2.
East Carolina (20-10, 2-2), ranked 16th by D1Baseball.com, dropped a tough one, with Ingle blowing his second straight save after recording a league-high seven.
Freshman Ross Massey (4-2) went the distance for Tulane, yielding 11 hits but only two runs, including a massive solo shot by Luke Bolka over the net behind the left field wall in the second. That blast was the first homer Massey has allowed this year and only the seventh by Tulane pitchers.
He pitched out of trouble right after East Carolina scored both of its runs, keeping the Pirates from adding to their total in the second when they had runners on second and third with one out and bouncing back again in the seventh when the Pirates had runners on first and second with one out after scoring on a squeeze play.
"He's not a big power guy and he's going to give up some hits, but he competes and he doesn't walk anybody, so they have to earn it,” Tulane coach David Pierce said. “He didn't walk a single hitter and he only struck out three, but it's a nice place to pitch and he did his job."
Rogers helped Massey by throwing out two would-be base-stealers, running his total to 12 out of 19.
Kruczynski retired 15 in a row after Stephen Alemais’ one-out single in the third. Only Witherspoon made solid contact in that stretch, hitting a fly ball that right fielder Jeff Nelson caught in front of the warning track.
No one else picked up any of his pitches as he kept everyone off balance without an overpowering fastball, using his 6-5 frame and low arm position well.
“Their starter was lights out tonight,” Pierce said. “He had 13 strikeouts, didn't walk anybody and threw some tough pitches all night. We had a hard time getting good aluminum on him. He was that good. We just kept giving ourselves a chance because of our pitching and made all the plays after the first.”
It was the second straight Friday Tulane struggled against an opposing ace. Anthony Kay had a perfect game through five innings before walking the bases loaded and giving up a grand slam to Witherspoon as Connecticut beat the Wave 10-4 in the AAC opener for both teams.
Alemais was the only Wave starter who did not strike out against Kruczynski. Designated hitter Matt Rowland whiffed his first three times before Montalbano pinch hit for him in the ninth.
Montalbano injured his arm pitching against Southeastern Louisiana on Tuesday, causing speculation he might be done for the year.
His return was only the second best story of the night for the Wave. Williams’ game-winner off Ingle (4-3) topped it.
“He was our starting first baseman all last year,” Pierce said. “What a way to come back.”