Tulane second baseman Jake Willsey is a little fuzzy on exactly what he did when right fielder Lex Kaplan caught a fly ball to clinch the American Athletic Conference championship Saturday night.
After hitting what turned out to be the game-winning home run in the seventh inning of the Green Wave’s 4-3 victory at Houston, he has a vague memory of joining the mob around pitcher J.P. France, who retired the last eight batters in a game that was delayed more than 31/2 hours between the fifth and sixth innings.
“I kind of blacked out,” Willsey said. “I saw everybody charging toward J.P. on the mound because he pitched so well in such a tough spot. I just jumped in with the rest of the team. It was just a great moment. It’s a bunch of guys that couldn’t deserve it any more. I think some water came flying in from somewhere.”
The Wave’s trip to Houston looked like it might end up all wet from a variety of sources before it ended in celebration.
Tulane (37-17, 15-7 AAC) won its first regular-season title since 2005, and coach David Pierce may have aged 11 years over three days in Houston. The Wave, which needed to win the series to hold off charging East Carolina (34-19-1, 15-8-1), overcome a gut-wrenching loss in the opener and a multitude of other issues along the way.
“It was just an incredible run,” said Pierce, a Houston alum. “The way our players responded the entire weekend exemplifies the guts and character of this team and the mental toughness to fight through so many things.”
Tulane learned that Thursday night’s scheduled opener had been changed to a Friday day-night doubleheader while on the way to practice Thursday afternoon. The weather turned out fine Thursday night.
On Friday, Tulane lost its hottest hitter, Hunter Williams, to an ejection and a mandatory one-game suspension in the third inning of the first game when he threw his helmet in frustration after being called out at the plate on a play that would have given the Wave a 2-0 lead.
Williams is hitting .343 in AAC play. No one else on the team is above .286.
“When he threw his helmet, it went toward our dugout,” Pierce said. “It wouldn’t be any different than a player touching first base on a bang-bang call and slamming their helmet and not getting tossed out. The issue is if you toss your helmet, you’re out, but I think you have to get a feel for the game. I didn’t agree with the ejection at all. It wasn’t anything malicious toward the umpire, but by rule, he removed his helmet.”
The Wave still was up 2-0 with two outs in the bottom of the eighth before Houston cut the deficit in half on a double that center fielder Grant Brown would have caught if he had not cramped up chasing the ball, an issue that forced him to be removed after he took the field in the ninth. Closer Corey Merrill then gave up the tying run, and the Cougars won in the bottom of the 13th on a bases-loaded, two-out walk.
Less than an hour after that heartbreaker, Tulane had to play again — without Williams and with the nation’s best defensive catcher, Jake Rogers, in left field for the first time in his college career after he caught all 13 innings of the first game. White-hot Houston had won eight of its previous nine, outscoring opponents 56-16 in that span in a desperate bid for an NCAA at-large berth.
Yet, the Wave never trailed again. Rogers and Lex Kaplan blasted three-run homers in the third inning of the nightcap en route to an 8-4 victory.
Williams made a triumphant return with a two-run homer in the first inning Saturday, and Jeremy Montalbano followed immediately with a solo shot for a 3-0 lead.
Ahead 3-2 when the rain came, the Wave promptly lost that lead upon the resumption when Kaplan and center fielder Grant Witherspoon could not locate a routine fly ball in a twilight sky that caused havoc for about 10 minutes. France pitched out of any further trouble, and Willsey led off the seventh with the decisive home run.
Until that at-bat, Willsey was 1-for-10 for the weekend.
“I was just seeing the ball really poorly, but I came up at a big spot and forgot all that had happened prior and just tried to put a good swing on the ball,” he said. “I was able to get a pitch to drive. It was just great to get the team back on top after we were fighting so hard.”
All of that drama came after confusion during the rain delay about whether the contest would be continued or Tulane would be declared the winner. The completion of the fifth inning, which occurred seconds before a lightning strike halted action, made the game official.
AAC rules dictate a getaway game cannot continue four hours after the opening pitch, but since Tulane was staying in Houston overnight before flying to Florida for the AAC tournament, the league’s Baseball Championship Committee voted 3-1 that it was not a getaway game.
Tulane deputy director of athletics Barbara Burke was the lone dissenter.
“The guys were getting cabin fever,” France said. “We were ready to play about 30 minutes before they told us we were going to play. I had to get my mind right. I knew I just had to go all-out. It was huge.”
In hindsight, the Wave relished winning the championship on the field.
“It makes a world of difference, honestly, because while at the same time if it had been called (off) we know we (would have) earned it, we really have that feeling of satisfaction having played a full nine innings,” Willsey said. “We’d much rather celebrate on the mound than at the gym.”
The Wave does not believe it needs any shortcuts.
“Tulane was once one of the premier programs in the country, and I think we’re on the verge of being able to say that again,” Willsey said. “This was the first step, and we’re anxious to be able to prove it.”
The celebration stopped on the bus back to the hotel Saturday night when the team learned Brown’s father had died after a long battle with cancer. Brown went home to Gulfport, Mississippi, to be with his family and did not accompany the team to Clearwater on Sunday. … Pierce’s son, Shea, was ruled out for the AAC tournament with a muscle tear in his ribs. He left the opener against Houston in the middle of an at-bat after aggravating the injury.