Jeremy Montalbano knew what was coming.
Approaching the plate in a scoreless tie in the bottom of the ninth inning, Tulane’s designated hitter could picture the pitch coming his way.
The only question was whether he could drive it hard enough to finally tally a run.
The moment the ball left his bat, any doubt was erased. Montalbano slammed the first pitch over the left-field wall, earning the Green Wave a 1-0 victory over Cincinnati, tying the weekend series at a game apiece.
Now, Tulane (22-12, 4-3) has an opportunity to take the series and vault past the Bearcats (17-19, 5-3) to control first place in the American Athletic Conference standings with a win Sunday.
“He beat me with the same pitch my at-bat before, so I was looking for something in, thinking it might go there,” Montalbano said. “It went in on me, and I just put a pretty good swing on it.”
It was just the latest installment of Tulane’s late-inning dramatics at Turchin Stadium. Saturday was the Green Wave’s fifth win its last at-bat, third game-ending home run and the second game-ending homer by Montalbano, who matched his dramatics from an opening-night victory over Illinois.
It was all the offensive production Tulane mustered. It was all Tulane needed.
Ross Massey threw his second consecutive complete game, notching a shutout and surrendering just three hits and a pair of walks around his five strikeouts. Massey tossed 70 strikes out of his 106 pitches, pouncing on Bearcats hitters by getting ahead in the count and avoiding critical mistakes.
The freshman right-hander allowed just two runs in his past 18 innings, earning critical victories over top-25 East Carolina on April 8 and first-place Cincinnati on Saturday.
“He’s just a special kid,” Tulane coach David Pierce said. “He goes out there and really competes and gives us a chance to win a game.”
Massey’s strike-throwing has been his hallmark since he broke into the Green Wave’s weekend rotation. He has walked just two batters (both Saturday) in his past 36 innings. At one point, he retired 15 consecutive batters, and he did not allow a Cincinnati runner to reach third base all game.
He wasn’t even fazed by a line drive that ricocheted off of his foot for an infield single in the eighth inning. Instead, Massey calmly delivered a groundout and stranded his fifth runner of the game.
“I felt like if I just threw strikes, they were going to put the ball in play and we were going to make the plays with the defense we have,” Massey said. “I don’t think there’s any big secret for pitching with our team. It’s throw first strikes and let them (the defense) work. As you saw today, we made some incredible plays.”
Many of those highlight plays were made by Hunter Hope at third base, who thwarted at least three would-be singles by deftly charging balls hit his way and gunning runners out at first base. However, left fielder Grant Witherspoon made the game’s most important defensive play, crashing into the outfield wall to tally the first out of the ninth.
“We talked about the defense and the pitching feeding off of each other, and Ross makes a better pitch the next time, knowing that he had support there,” Pierce said. “The ball where Witherspoon goes up at the wall and Hope’s dive on the sliding catch were huge today. Hunter Hope is the best third baseman in the country, in my opinion.”
Each of those pitches and defensive plays were necessary to seal the victory, considering the anemic state of Tulane’s hitting. In seven conference games, six different regulars in Tulane’s lineup — Stephen Alemais, Richard Carthon, Jake Rogers, Jake Willsey, Hope and Witherspoon — have compiled just 20 hits in 141 at bats (.142 batting average).
While Tulane had more hitting activity Saturday than in its 2-1 loss on Friday night, the frustration of stranding six runners, including two in scoring position in the eighth inning, was evident. In fact, in the past two games, Tulane’s only run production has come from a pair of Montalbano solo homers.
But it’s been enough to even the series and give Sunday starter Alex Massey (Ross’ older brother) an opportunity to give Tulane another series win when he takes the mound at 1 p.m.
“It was pretty frustrating because our offense has been in a little funk recently,” Montalbano said. “We all know we can hit the ball, so hopefully this kind of loosens everybody up so we can come out (Sunday) a little loosened up and have fun.”