CLEARWATER, Fla. — In the wake of last weekend’s three-game, 31-inning endurance challenge at Houston, Tulane baseball coach David Pierce had to lean on some seldom-used arms to get through Tuesday night’s American Athletic Conference tournament opener.
Facing eighth-seeded Central Florida, Pierce started fifth-year senior right-hander Trevor Simms, who had hit six batters in 14.2 innings, then summoned lefty Sam Bjorngjeld (15.2 innings) with one out in the third. Fourth-year junior righty Dan Rankin (20 innings, 2.70 ERA) followed two innings later.
By the seventh, Pierce already had employed six pitchers. But by nearly emptying his bullpen for the tourney opener, he might have replenished his staff for the long haul.
The ensemble of arms, combined with just enough offense and three UCF errors, propelled the top-seeded Green Wave to a 4-3 triumph at Bright House Field.
They Green Wave (38-17) will have regular Friday night starter Emerson Gibbs available — on five days’ rest — for Thursday’s 2 p.m. winners’ bracket game against fifth-seeded Houston.
At times Tuesday, he seemed the only Green Wave arm not to be summoned.
“We just knew that we were gonna use multiple guys tonight,” Pierce said. “(Simms) was a little erratic; it’s a little unfamiliar territory for him. But he held in there and got the ball to the next guy.”
Who got the ball to the next. And the next after that. And so on it went for the conference regular-season champs.
UCF broke open a scoreless game in the top of the fifth with three runs on as many hits and two walks. Designated hitter Sam Tolleson made it 3-0 with a two-run, bases-loaded single that chased Rankin.
Before that, Pierce had gotten courageous — if not crisp — efforts from Simms and Bjorngjeld, who teamed to allow two earned runs on three hits.
Simms pitched 2.1 scoreless innings, fanning four and walking two. Bjorngjeld allowed only a hit in 1.2 innings but left Rankin to inherit runners at the corners with no out in the fifth.
“Sam has been great in a role but he hasn’t been extended,” Pierce said. “I think he got just over 30 pitches, and that’s just about his max as well.”
The Green Wave, ranked 11th by Baseball America, answered with two in the bottom of the fifth, capitalizing on two walks and a Knights error. Right fielder Lex Kaplan then led off the sixth with a double — Tulane’s second hit of the night off UCF ace Robby Howell — and scored on Jake Rogers’ single to tie the score.
The Green Wave took the lead for good in the bottom of the seventh. After Grant Witherspoon was hit by a Howell pitch and moved to second on a throwing error, designated hitter Jeremy Montalbano hit a two-out, opposite-field blast that got stuck in the back padding of a sign in right field for a ground-rule double.
The lead was preserved by the play of the evening in the top of the eighth.
With two outs and runners at the corners, UCF No. 2 hitter Eli Putnam hit a sharp grounder almost directly over second base. Green Wave shortstop Stephen Alemais, shaded slightly toward the hole, snagged the ball and drilled it to Hunter “Big Country” Williams, who had to come off first base for the catch but tagged Putnam for the out.
“Incredible,” Pierce said. “Stephen makes a great play up the middle to save a run, and ‘Big Country’ made three great plays at first base.”
Junior right-hander Corey Merrill (3-1), the sixth and final Tulane pitcher, worked the final 2.1 innings for the win.