Pursuing it first conference championship in 11 years, the Tulane baseball team has found a closer to match its sterling starting pitching.
If junior Corey Merrill keeps throwing the way he has in his last two relief appearances, the surging Green Wave (33-14, 11-5 American Athletic Conference) will be that much more dangerous down the stretch. Tulane, ranked 15th by D1Baseball.com, entertains Memphis (16-33, 7-11) this weekend at Turchin Stadium and is a half-game in front of East Carolina at the top of the standings with two series left.
The Wave put itself in that position without an ace out of the bullpen.
Enter Merrill, the opening day starter for the second consecutive year before a forearm injury sidetracked his season. After missing a month with what coach David Pierce termed a “dead arm,” he earned his second save in four days with a dominant two-inning stint against UNO on Tuesday night, striking out five of the seven batters he faced while making most of them look silly.
The movement on his pitches has never looked livelier.
“His stuff is so different than what you see out of a traditional type closer,” Pierce said. “He just doesn’t throw anything straight. His fastball is either a cutter or a slider, and he really commanded the curveball (against UNO).”
The Privateers, who had seven hits and several hard outs against Tulane starter J.P. France, could not touch Merrill. After flailing at third strikes, each batter returned to the dugout using hand motions to indicate how much the ball was dropping in the strike zone.
“Our guys didn’t have a chance,” Privateers coach Blake Dean said. “He had some really good stuff right there.”
Merrill’s performance was similar to his outing against South Florida on Saturday, when he struck out five in 3.1 innings while allowing only one hit. He already has equaled the save total of Patrick Duester, Tulane’s nominal closer for much of the year.
“The injury is long gone,” Merrill said. “I’ve forgotten about it now. The main thing is just getting back into that comfort zone on the mound again. It’s starting to come back a lot, and I’ll be ready whenever they call my name, whether that’s closing or starting.”
Pierce can afford to use Merrill out of the bullpen because the starting pitching has been terrific in his absence.
Emerson Gibbs, the new Friday starter, is 5-2 with a 2.57 ERA. Freshman Ross Massey (8-2, 1.81) is battling for the American Athletic Conference lead in victories and ERA. Senior Alex Massey, Ross’s older brother, has not allowed a run in his last two starts. France, the midweek starter, has beaten LSU and Southern Miss twice apiece, losing only once in nine starts.
“When you lose your Friday night starter for seven weeks, that really shifts everybody,” Pierce said. “I commend the way that everybody on the staff has taken on roles and allowed Gibbs to go to Friday nights, Ross has been outstanding, and for the last two weeks Alex has been great.”
Merrill led the team with a 2.12 ERA last year and surrendered two or fewer runs in four of his five starts this season before getting hurt. Now that he is healthy, he is more valuable in the back end of a game than at the front end of the rotation.
Duester (4.78 ERA) has not allowed a run in nine of his last 11 appearances, but his 25 free passes (21 walks, four hit batters) in 26.1 innings keep everyone on the edge of their seats.
“If we weren’t pitching so well, we would immediately start working (Merrill) in a starting role,” Pierce said. “But because we have done a job on the front end, it’s a good fit for us. That’s our need right now.”
Obviously, the season has not gone as Merrill expected. He finished third in the AAC in ERA in 2015 and was a prime candidate for the league’s pitcher of the year as 2016 started.
That opportunity is long gone, but he would love to backload his accomplishments into May and June.
“We definitely have a shot to make a run at it for sure,” he said. “We knew that going into the season, and now the hitters are doing their job, the pitchers have picked up the slack and everything is working together.”
In his new role, Merrill is finishing what his teammates started.
“Coming out of the bullpen right now, he’s huge for us,” third baseman Hunter Hope said. “He’s still one of the best pitchers around.”
Memphis is last in the AAC by a wide margin in ERA at 5.43, almost a run-and-a-half more than USF, the closest team. … The Tigers are second in stolen bases with 70 in 90 attempts, but Tulane has allowed only 14 stolen bases — less than half the total of anyone else in the AAC — thanks primarily to the rocket arm of catcher Jake Rogers. … Memphis has lost five of six conference series but has not been swept.