The Tulane baseball team moved close enough to taste its first conference championship in 11 years Sunday, even though coach David Pierce couldn’t get anywhere close to the field after the first inning.
Pierce was ejected for arguing a call at first base, but the Green Wave finally solved Memphis’ pitching after wanting to spit out its performance at the plate in the series’ first two games. The Wave won a topsy-turvy affair 9-5 in front of 2,521 at Turchin Stadium, taking the series and moving 1½ games ahead of East Carolina at the top of the American Athletic Conference with one week left.
Tulane (35-15, 13-6), which has tied its win total from 2015, travels to Houston to end the regular season starting Thursday. It can clinch the title with two victories no matter what anyone else in the league does.
“You can see (a championship) at the end of the tunnel right there,” first baseman Hunter Williams said. “You can’t look too far ahead, but they can’t catch us if we keep winning.”
Williams played a huge role Sunday with a solo home run in the fifth inning — his fifth of the year — and a tiebreaking hit to the left side of the infield as Tulane took control with four runs in the seventh. When the Wave managed only one run Friday (a 1-0 victory) and Saturday (an 8-1 loss), grounders and fly balls kept heading directly to Memphis fielders, who shifted dramatically to normally vacant spots.
It happened to Williams twice on balls he hit just to the right of second base, but not on his go-ahead at-bat.
“A lot of that’s just luck,” he said. “You hit a hard ground ball, and you just hope it doesn’t go to anybody. You just try to find the barrel, and I just found the hole.”
Memphis (17-35, 8-13) gave the Wave a much tougher battle all weekend than the teams’ records suggested. The Tigers led 2-0 on Sunday before Tulane finally came up with a clutch hit in the second.
With the bases loaded, Jake Rogers ripped a two-run single against an alignment that had three infielders on the left side of second base. Hunter Hope scored the go-ahead run on an errant throw during the same play, and Stephen Alemais chased starter Jonathan Bowlan with a single that made it 4-2.
By that point, Pierce was gone. First-base umpire Darren Budahn tossed him in the top of the first during what appeared to be a mild discussion about a close call at first base.
“I thought it was very short-fused,” Pierce said. “I was in control, so it’s upsetting that it happened.”
His absence did not short-circuit the Wave. Associate head coach Sean Allen took over, and Tulane began connecting against a pitching staff with by far the worst ERA in the AAC.
Williams, Alemais, Grant Witherspoon and Jake Willsey all had two hits, part of a 12-hit day after the Wave managed 10 in the first two games. Five came in the seventh as Tulane batted around, including four in a row against Connor Alexander (2-7).
Pierce’s decision to move Witherspoon to second from third and Williams to third from seventh in the batting order paid off, but the top eight guys all had at least one hit.
“We just stuck to our approach today,” Alemais said. “They held us pretty well the first two games, but we maintained confidence. We knew we would find the holes at some time.”
Tulane, which entered the weekend as the highest-scoring team in the AAC, needed the offensive revival. Starting pitcher Alex Massey did not have the Senior Day performance he was expecting, walking three batters in the first inning after issuing one free pass in his previous two starts combined.
Although he settled down for a while, he was lifted after giving up three straight hits to start the sixth, visibly frustrated when he did not get a called third strike to the second batter.
Reliever Corey Merrill surrendered a two-out double to the wall as Memphis rallied for three runs to tie the score at 5.
“We got that win, and that??s all that matters,” Massey said. “We had to overcome some tough calls, and we didn’t let that haunt us too bad.”
The Wave flirted with more trouble in the seventh when Memphis’ Darien Tubbs, the AAC preseason player of the year, led off with his second of three consecutive doubles on a four-hit day. Merrill retired the next two batters before lefty Sam Bjorngjeld struck out cleanup hitter Jacob Elliott with Tubbs on third.
Bjorngjeld (1-0), a redshirt sophomore, earned his first career win despite facing only one batter. He has allowed only one hit and no runs in his past seven appearances as a short-relief specialist.
“I’m not sure if I deserve the victory based on one batter, but I guess I came in at the right time,” he said. “I’ll take it. It was a pretty important out. I try not to let the pressure get to me.”