Coming off its first series-opening win in five weeks, the Tulane baseball team needed less than a minute to kick any momentum away.
More accurately, the Green Wave let that momentum go right between its legs.
Third baseman Hunter Hope did not get down on a grounder hit right at him on the third pitch, leading to two unearned runs in the top of the first inning, and Tulane never recovered, losing 8-0 to Central Florida at rain-soaked Turchin Stadium on Saturday.
The Wave (23-15, 4-7) fell back into sole possession of last place in the American Athletic Conference, while No. 19 UCF (26-14, 5-6),the only ranked team in the league, climbed out of the cellar for at least a day. The two teams will meet in the series decider on Sunday at 1 p.m. after trading shutouts in the first two games.
“I thought we were a little complacent today, no doubt,” coach David Pierce said. “We’ll find out what we’re made of tomorrow.”
Little went right for Tulane from the start in a game moved back two hours by overnight rain. After Hope’s mistake, starting pitcher Emerson Gibbs (3-2) walked Tommy Williams with one out. The runners advanced to second and third on a passed ball before the Wave tried a huge infield shift on left-handed cleanup hitter James Vasquez, with shortstop Stephen Alemais standing behind second base and second baseman Jake Willsey standing on the outfield turf in right field.
The same alignment saved a run in the fifth inning, but this time, Vasquez hit a weak grounder right where Alemais would have been in a traditional setup, getting an RBI infield single.
“He (Vasquez) hit a changeup right on the cap (of the bat),” Pierce said. “If that’s what we have to give up with Vasquez, I’m OK with that.”
The Knights scored their second run on a squeeze bunt.
Tulane did not get its second base runner until the sixth inning as UCF’s Zach Rodgers (7-0) allowed only three hits and struck out 11 in his third consecutive complete-game performance. Two of the hits were bunts, and the Knights erased the only hit that reached the outfield — a single from Hunter Williams in the second — by turning a 1-4-3 double play.
Rodgers, who has given up two earned runs in his last 35 innings, was in trouble just once. He walked Jake Willsey and gave up a bunt single to Richard Carthon with one out in the sixth before Stephen Alemais hit a screaming foul ball to deep left field.
Alemais then grounded out to short, and Lex Kaplan struck out to the end the threat.
“He (Rodgers) was doing a good job of pitching off speed and getting his slider in there,” Carthon said. “There’s a lot of balls that we should have hit that we fouled off. We just have to get better.”
Gibbs, who had given up one run in 30 innings at home this year, took the loss despite allowing only one earned run in eight innings –a home run in the third by Derrick Salberg that barely cleared the wall in right field.
UCF entered with a nation’s leading 50 home runs.
“It was a changeup I left up a little bit, and he put a good swing on it,” Gibbs said. “We had a couple of bad breaks in the first inning, but you can’t let that get to you.”
UCF ended any suspense by scoring five times in the ninth off reliever Dan Rankin. Even before then, Tulane already appeared out of it, with Pierce having to bench center fielder John Gandolfo when he jawed at UCF catcher Logan Heiser after striking out in the seventh.
“There was an exchange,” Pierce said. “I didn’t like it, so it was time to make a change.”