Tulane baseball team visits Cincinnati for pivotal American Athletic Conference series _lowres

Advocate file photo by A.J. SISCO -- Tulane pitcher Corey Merrill

The Tulane baseball team caught a bad break in the American Athletic Conference schedule.

The Green Wave’s NCAA regional hopes virtually require a series win at last-place Cincinnati this weekend, but the Bearcats are dramatically better at home than on the road. They have yet to win away from Marge Schott Stadium in conference play, suffering the league’s only two sweeps through four weeks as South Florida and Houston outscored them 53-14.

They’ve captured both of their home series, though, winning two of three against Central Florida while limiting the Knights to six runs and outlasting Memphis 8-7 in 12 innings to take the rubber game of that matchup.

UCF was ranked 10th by D1Baseball.com at the time when it faced Cincinnati. Memphis, which is tied for second in the AAC standings, has won its other three league series.

Clearly, Tulane (26-16, 5-7) needs to look past the dismal record of Cincinnati (13-27, 4-8), which starts five freshmen and is the only AAC team with an RPI outside the top 60 (No. 175 according to WarrenNolan.com).

“It’s just going to be a tough weekend series,” coach David Pierce said. They have played well at home. They have some young players, but they are very committed to them and have a lot of pride.”

The Bearcats also boast preseason AAC Player of the Year Ian Happ, a switch-hitting junior right fielder with a league-best .377 batting average and 10 home runs. Happ went 5-for-5 with two homers in the Tigers’ series decider against Memphis. He scored four times against Xavier.

No one else on the team is hitting within 100 points of him.

“He has the ability to take over the game, so you might pitch him a little different than the others,” Pierce said. “It’s going to be very situational with him.”

On paper, Tulane will have favorable starting pitching matchups each day with the solid trio of Corey Merrill (2.06 ERA), Emerson Gibbs (2.41) and Alex Massey (2.75) going in that order. Cincinnati’s ERA is 5.97, more than a run higher than any other team in the AAC.

Again, those numbers might be misleading.

Friday starter Ryan Atkinson allowed one hit in five innings to UCF and two runs in five innings to Memphis, winning both games. Saturday starter David Orndorff gave up only six hits in 11 innings against the same two teams. Sunday starter Dalton Lehnen went the distance against UCF, yielding six hits and two runs, and he lasted into the eighth inning versus Memphis.

Tulane, which is second-to-last in the AAC in almost every offensive statistic — ahead of only Cincinnati — managed one hit off of nine LSU pitchers Tuesday. When the Wave struggles at the plate early, it appears to have a hard time getting out of the funk, but Pierce dismissed that concern as a universal trend rather than a Tulane-specific issue.

“Every hitter gets down on themselves,” he said. “It’s just overcoming that failure because there’s so much of it (in baseball) and just try to focus on that particular at-bat being a quality at-bat. We’re constantly working on helping them create an approach that works for them and helping them understand what their holes are and what their strengths are.”

The Wave would love to swing the bat like it did against UCF on Sunday, when it pounded out 11 hits and scored 10 runs in a game shortened to seven innings by the AAC’s run rule.

“We’re off and on too much,” said catcher Jake Rogers, whose batting average in conference games (.316) is significantly better than his overall average (.250). “If we can just keep stepping forward and get the bats rolling, we’ll be in good shape.”

First, Tulane needs to win this weekend’s series. Cincinnati’s recent home success and Tulane’s long-term history on the road likely preclude a sweep — the Wave has not swept anyone away from Turchin Stadium since 2008 — but it can get a game within .500 in the deep AAC by taking two of three.

“I think we’re good,” shortstop Stephen Alemais said. “We’re right in the middle of the pack. It’s going to be real big if we win this series.”