Abysmal pitching has plagued the Tulane baseball team all year. The Green Wave just didn’t expect ace Corey Merrill to become part of the problem.
Central Florida jumped all over Merrill with five runs in the first inning, knocked him out while scoring three more in the fifth and cruised past Tulane 11-4 on Friday night at Turchin Stadium.
Coming off a stretch in which the Wave won six straight games that he pitched, Merrill has given up 20 runs in 7.2 innings over his past two starts, with his ERA skyrocketing to 5.37 from 3.59. Along the way, Tulane (22-25, 9-7) fell from first place in the American Athletic Conference into a fourth-place tie, a game behind UCF (32-14, 10-6), South Florida and Houston.
“They got a couple innings worth of scoring, but the ones they did were crooked and separated the game a little bit,” coach Travis Jewett said. “We were playing from behind all night. It’s just not going our way right now.”
The pivotal battle occurred in the first at-bat. UCF leadoff hitter Luke Hamblin fouled off three consecutive two-strike pitches before lacing a double into the right-field corner. After an out, five straight hitters reached base on two singles, two doubles and a walk.
Tulane responded with three runs in the bottom of the first off UCF ace Robby Howell — the key blow a two-run double by Hunter Hope — but Sal Gozzo popped up to shortstop with the tying run on second to end a 38-minute inning.
If anything, the rest of the night was even longer for the Wave, which lost for the sixth time in eight games.
Howell (8-0) settled down, retiring 13 in a row from the third through the seventh. Merrill (6-4) got better, too, but only briefly. He was gone after three straight singles in the fifth, yielding 10 hits in 4.1 innings.
“Merrill will figure it out,” Jewett said. “He’s a good pitcher and had a lot of success in his career. It just hadn’t really gone his way the last couple of times, but we’re going to need him going forward. Hopefully he and (pitching coach Tighe Dickinson) can make those adjustments necessarily and he can be pitching his best down the stretch. He’s only got a few more starts in this uniform.”
Tulane, which had won five in a row immediately after giving up 10 or more runs this season, was not as resilient following a 16-2 demolition by Southeastern Louisiana on Tuesday night.
Despite entering Friday in a five-way tie for first place in the AAC, the Wave’s ERA of 5.51 was tied for the third-worst since the school began keeping records in 1965.
Once Howell exited in the seventh, the matchup of bullpens was not any closer. UCF brought in Thaddeus Ward, who had an ERA of 0.72, and Eric Hepple (0.00), two of four Knights relievers with a sub-1.00 ERA in at least 10 appearances. Tulane went to Chase Solesky (3.99), Burton Schnake (7.53), Ted Andrews (5.14) and Jack Hogan (15.19). Andrews hit three batters and gave up a two-run homer in the eighth inning.
“Tonight is not the result we were looking for, but it certainly doesn’t mean we’re going to lose the series, either,” Jewett said. “There’s really not much that I could say tonight. The kids know what’s at stake. They have to come out (Saturday) and have a little bit of a statement game. We’re still right here and in the thick of this thing.”
The Wave has to hope J.P. France (4-3), whose 2.55 ERA in AAC games is by far the best among its starting pitchers, can stop the bleeding Saturday.
“We’re going to need him to come out and stabilize the game and give us a chance to get into the flow of it,” Jewett said. “Hopefully he can hold a good-hitting team down and we can do some things offensively we’re certainly capable of doing.”