Like many hotshot high school pitchers without overwhelming stuff, Emerson Gibbs cooled down quickly when he arrived in college.
These days, though, he is putting the deep freeze on opposing hitters.
Midway through his senior season, he has become the most dominant member of the Tulane baseball team’s productive weekend rotation, harkening back to the time when he led Jesuit to a state championship in 2011 and was Catholic League Pitcher of the Year in 2012.
When the Green Wave (21-11, 3-2) hosts Cincinnati (16-18, 4-2) in a matchup of the top two teams in the American Athletic Conference standings, Gibbs (3-1, 2.22 ERA) will start Friday night for the first time in his career.
“Things are just coming together,” he said. “I’ve got experience under my belt. I have a routine going now.”
That’s an understatement. Beginning with a two-hit shutout against Furman on March 13, he has allowed four earned runs in 36.2 innings covering his past five starts. He capped that stretch with another shutout against ranked East Carolina last Saturday, allowing only two runners to reach second base.
His calling card always has been immaculate control. A year after walking 19 in 79 innings — the best ratio by a Tulane pitcher since 1969 — he has issued 10 walks in 52.2 innings.
The difference is what happens when opponents swing. He was pounded in his first two years, giving up 85 hits in 61 innings.
“It was a real big crusher,” he said. “Baseball is a humbling sport, but you have to keep playing. If you stick to your routine, more times than not you’ll come out on top.”
He began turning it around as a junior but still gave up 72 hits and a staff-high six home runs in 79 innings.
This season, he has allowed one home run and 39 hits, possessing by far the best hits-to-innings ratio on the team.
“He commands three pitches and he does the intangibles,” coach David Pierce said. “He handles the running game as well as the bunt game, so he plays his position well as well. He’s a competitor and he’s very tough.”
Pierce compares Gibbs’ stuff and makeup to former Rice star Ryan Berry, a two-time first-team All-Conference USA selection who pitched in the College World Series in 2008. Part of that similarity is Pierce’s handiwork.
When he arrived at Tulane two years ago, he taught Gibbs a spike curve that involves an unconventional two-finger grip with the knuckle around the seam. It did not take long for Gibbs to master a pitch that was popular at Rice when Pierce was an assistant there.
“Some guys don’t understand it and they have no feel for it, so it doesn’t work for them,” Pierce said. “Emerson felt comfortable with it right away. It tightens your wrist up and makes you throw that pitch a little tighter. He’s throwing it up to 82 miles an hour, and it’s a huge ‘out’ pitch for him.”
Gibbs’ fastball tops out at 92, but he usually stays in the high 80s. He had to become a complete pitcher to replicate his success at Jesuit.
What fooled them in high school was getting filleted in college.
“You are facing men when you’re a freshman, and you are just a boy,” he said. “I had to learn how to pitch, really. In high school you can go out there and throw outside fastballs. In college you have to know why you’re throwing it and what the next pitch is leading up to it.”
Gibbs’ pitches Friday could put Tulane in first place. The Green Wave has not come close to winning a regular season title since 2005, but the opportunity is there in the balanced AAC. The Wave is a half-game behind the league-leading Bearcats and ahead of everyone else after two weekends.
Cincinnati, which finished last in the league the past two years, won home series against South Florida and Connecticut with excellent starting pitching.
Right-handed Andrew Zellner blanked the Huskies through seven innings last Friday. The Bearcats have scored and allowed 18 runs through six conference games.
Gibbs’ job is to remind Cincinnati why it is 7-38 all-time against Tulane, which entered the D1Baseball rankings at No. 22 this week and is 15-3 at Turchin Stadium. If he succeeds, the lesson probably will come rapidly.
His two shutouts have clocked in at two-hours-and-14 minutes and two-hours-and-17 minutes.
“He’s been awesome,” right fielder Lex Kaplan said. “As a fielder I don’t want to be out there long. It’s kind of boring. With his tempo and the way he works, we’re in and out fast, and that really helps him.”