Hotter than it has been in years, the Tulane baseball team is getting ready for a rapid cool-down.
The Green Wave does not have a choice there. Its American Athletic Conference series opener is in frigid Storrs, Connecticut, which is expected to have snow and a low temperature in the 20s on Sunday. Also, there’s an 80-percent chance of thunderstorms Friday with winds gusting well above 20 mph. The forecast already has forced the Huskies to move up the start time to noon, with who-knows-what havoc in store for the rest of the weekend.
“We’re taking a lot of warm clothes,” Tulane coach David Pierce said. “We have to be prepared for anything that can happen. We could play a doubleheader Friday, possibly play a doubleheader Saturday and then still play a single game all three days, but it looks like we’ll be bunched up one of the days.”
They might have to bunch up in the dugout to try to stay warm. After winning six in a row, including a 7-1 thumping of LSU at Alex Box Stadium on Tuesday, Tulane (18-7) faces an entirely different challenge at Connecticut (12-11).
“It’s definitely going to be cold,” said shortstop Stephen Alemais, a Bronx native who knows these conditions. “The thing we have to look at is both teams are going to be playing in that weather. We really have to go out there and be tough mentally.”
Second baseman Jake Willsey, from Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, expects the pitchers to have more of a problem than the hitters as they try to keep their arms warm in between innings. Aside from that issue, he professed little concern.
“Not quite like this, but we faced tough elements last year,” he said. “Cincinnati was pretty cold (the Wave swept the Bearcats), and honestly, after innings 1 through 3, you don’t really notice it any more. I played in Boston my whole life. I’m used to it.”
Freshman first baseman Grant Witherspoon, a Colorado native, expressed a little more trepidation.
“There’s a point where your fingers and toes just go numb,” he said. “You just have to get used to playing with that, and when you hit it off the end (of the bat) it’s going to sting. When you’re standing in the field and nothing’s coming to you, you just have to stay focused and not think about the cold.”
In warm weather, Tulane’s focus has been nearly perfect in recent weeks. Getting good pitching, better hitting and stellar defense, the Wave matched its best record through 25 games (2011) since starting 20-5 on its way to the College World Series in 2005.
With ace Corey Merrill missing his second consecutive start because of arm tenderness, Tulane will use the pitching rotation it had against Illinois State last weekend. Freshman Ross Massey, boasting a team-best 1.12 ERA, will throw Friday, followed by Emerson Gibbs and Alex Massey.
The lineup figures to be exactly the same as at LSU, when everyone reached base at least once except for center fielder Richard Carthon, whose .330 batting average is the second to Alemais on the team.
Witherspoon, the only underclassman starter, had two hits and two walks in five plate appearances.
“The LSU game was probably the first time we put it all together,” he said. “That’s kind of scary for other teams out there. We’re really confident in everything right now, and we just have to build on that performance.”
UConn, which eliminated Tulane from the AAC tourney a year ago, has underperformed to this point. After placing a league-high five players on the All-AAC team, the Huskies lost seven of eight before winning their last three to climb above .500.
“They rolled out of the gate with great expectations and even us thinking that these guys can really play,” Pierce said. “And they can. They just started slow. They are playing really well right now, and they have a lot of talent.”
They also are much more used to playing in nasty weather, prompting Pierce to question the wisdom of sending any team to Storrs in early April.
“I’m a little disappointed in the scheduling,” he said. “It looks like right now going into AAC play, all four Southern schools are going to all four northern schools for opening weekend. That’s something that really I feel like can be adjusted.”