After limiting Connecticut to one run in seven innings Friday, Tulane’s Corey Merrill could not stop talking about the pitcher who preceded him.
If the rejuvenated Green Wave (18-18) keeps playing well, the night spot starter Sam Bjorngjeld outpitched Huskies ace Tim Cate will symbolize the turnaround more than any other moment.
Thanks in large part to Bjorngjeld’s unexpected effectiveness, the Wave is seeking a season-best five-game winning streak when it hosts Louisiana-Lafayette at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in Turchin Stadium.
“Just coming back after (Bjorngjeld's) performance last night, that’s hard to beat,” Merrill said Friday after winning the middle game of a weekend sweep that propelled Tulane to the top of the American Athletic Conference. “He battled for us, and I knew I had to come in and show the same type of fight.”
Tulane’s .500 record and No. 94 standing in the RPI are not NCAA-regional quality yet, but it will have plenty of opportunities to improve those numbers. The Wave’s next 16 games are against teams in the RPI's top 100, and Tuesday's game against the Ragin' Cajuns (21-14-1), a perennial NCAA regional participant, is the only one of the next six against anyone a team outside the top 31. Southern Miss (No. 31) plays at Turchin Stadium on Wednesday. Tulane travels to Houston (No. 15) for a weekend series and returns home to face LSU (No. 17) next Tuesday.
Formerly pitching-thin, the Wave will need more nights like Bjorngjeld’s to sustain its momentum during this tough stretch.
Last year, he was a short-relief specialist, logging 20 innings in 22 appearances with a 3.15 ERA. He began this season in the same role for new coach Travis Jewett but was less effective, giving up six earned runs in 5.2 innings over his first seven stints.
He finally found his groove against the Cajuns, entering in the first and pitching a career-long 5.1 innings of three-hit ball as the Wave won 6-4 on March 22 in Lafayette.
That performance, and a five-inning stretch against South Florida and Cincinnati when he allowed no runs over two appearances, convinced Jewett to start him in the opener against UConn.
If it were a boxing match, it would have been called before the opening bell. In one corner, there was Cate, who had a 2.40 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 30 innings a year after earning AAC rookie pitcher of the year honors. In the other, there was Bjorngjeld (6.04 ERA), whose only career start had come on a planned two-inning, "Johnny Wholestaff" night against Nicholls State.
Bjorngjeld jabbed his way through six innings, yielding only one run despite giving up eight hits and walking two. Cate, partly because he got burned by his defense, allowed seven runs in the third inning as Tulane cruised to an 8-3 victory.
“This was for sure my first real start,” Bjorngjeld said. “I had lots of rest, came in and my arm felt good and I never got too tired. Maybe I’ll get another chance to do it again.”
He can count on it: He's slated to started Wednesday night against Southern Miss.
“He did a good job,” Jewett said. “He kept a good team at bay.”
Sophomore Ross Massey (0-4, 7.04 ERA) is slated to start against the Ragin' Cajuns, his first appearance since failing to record an out against Stetson on March 26.
Massey, who set a Tulane freshman record with 10 wins last year, could not find the plate in six starts to open the season, walking 25, hitting four batters and throwing six wild pitches over 23 innings. Jewett said Massey looked much better in recent bullpen sessions during practice.