Everything was headed in the right direction for Tulane’s baseball program.
The No. 15 Green Wave climbed to its highest place in the polls in nine years, winning 12 of its past 13 games and leading the American Athletic Conference standings. Fans were flocking back to Turchin Stadium, and Tulane administrators were preparing a bid to host an NCAA tournament regional.
Then, for one afternoon at least, the ride got rocky.
Memphis threw up a roadblock into Tulane’s momentum. The Tigers pounded the Green Wave 8-1 to even the series, setting up a rubber game Sunday.
The loss proved to be doubly damaging to Tulane, because the Tigers’ No. 227 RPI rating sunk the Green Wave (34-14, 12-5 American) from No. 22 to No. 32 in the formula. Since 2012, no team has earned a No. 1 seed in regional play with an RPI worse than No. 25.
The loss also cropped up a series of unprecedented problems, which included the school’s new video board that was rendered useless because of a malfunction.
Starter Ross Massey (8-3), who entered with a stellar 1.82 ERA, surrendered five earned runs and six hits in two innings, leaving his bullpen in a 6-0 hole. From there, the Green Wave turned to four different arms, who minimized the damage to a pair of runs, but it wasn’t nearly enough to change the outcome.
“The thing with Ross is, he’s been so good for us,” Tulane coach David Pierce said. “Everything he’s done up to this point has been tremendous. He just couldn’t get the ball down, and pitched behind. It’s just when he got to two strikes, he didn’t make pitches.
“It was one of those days for the freshman, and he’ll be back. He was just off. He hung two breaking balls with two strikes. It was just one of those bad days for Ross.”
Meanwhile, for the second day in a row, Tulane’s offense was shut out for the first seven innings. This time, Tulane was handcuffed by starter Matt Ferguson (5-4), whose complete-game victory was the best outing of his career.
The Tigers (16-34, 7-12 American) entered with the worst team ERA in the AAC (5.43) but have so far baffled Tulane’s league-leading offense for two games. Outside of an eighth inning run Friday night — generated by a wild pitch on a strikeout — and a Stephen Alemais RBI single Saturday, Tulane’s bats have been silenced by the Tigers’ suddenly resurgent pitching staff.
“Today, this is a (pitcher) we need to hammer,” second baseman Jake Willsey said. “There’s just no other way of putting it. His fastball was maybe upper-80s and he threw three pitches and commanded them, but we need to be able to hit those guys and we just didn’t. Give him credit. He beat us.”
No Green Wave base runners reached third base on Saturday until the eighth inning. Only five runners even made it to scoring position.
While Ferguson kept Tulane’s hitters off balance in the batter’s box, Memphis’ defensive adjustments in the field also paid dividends. Nearly every Tulane hitter was forced to hit into some variation of an infield or outfield shift, which gobbled up an array of hard-hit balls and made Tulane’s strengths work against it.
“You don’t want to change the way you hit, but it is frustrating,” Alemais said. “You hit a ball up the middle that would be a hit anywhere else, and it’s right at a guy. But you can’t change your approach, because eventually if you keep barreling balls, they’ll find a way to fall in. We hit a lot of those today, and they just went to the wrong spots.”
The only good news Tulane salvaged came from across the country. East Carolina dropped a 5-1 decision to South Florida, allowing Tulane to maintain its lead in the AAC by a half-game over ECU and Connecticut.
Now, the Wave will turn to senior starter Alex Massey at 1 p.m. Sunday, with its hopes of hosting a regional possibly dangling in the balance.
“We’re at this stage of the season; they know what’s at stake,” Pierce said. “They understand it. We don’t panic when we lose, and we don’t celebrate, or overly celebrate, when we win. We’d like to go business as usual, get to work in the morning and be ready to play.”