Everything about Tulane’s pitching staff is written in pencil.
At media day Tuesday, first-year coach David Pierce said his pitching rotation is typically fluid, and that whoever wins starting jobs and bullpen assignments in February won’t necessarily be the frontrunners to hold those spots in May.
In Pierce’s three years of leading Sam Houston State to the NCAA tournament, he routinely mixed up his rotation and bullpen roles, not only to optimize production but to ensure internal competition carried throughout the season.
While Tulane sophomore Corey Merrill and junior Alex Massey have performed well enough to be considered frontrunners by Pierce for two of the Green Wave’s starting roles, untested arms like juniors Patrick Duester and Jordan Gross along with freshman Jackson Johnson are finding their way into the mix in preseason practice.
Pierce also set out the possibility of using former freshman All-America closer Ian Gibaut as a starter, making sure the Green Wave’s ERA leader has a chance to affect the game at both ends.
“Right now, I think we have nine potential guys who could be in position to get into a starting role,” Pierce said. “Early in the year, we are going to piggyback a couple of starting arms and double up a little bit just for longevity. Usually your bullpen is formulated by the guys who aren’t your starters.
“In three years at Sam Houston State, I don’t think we ever started the same four guys from Friday to Tuesday in a whole season. Throughout the year, we had hiccups when kids struggled, and then we will take them out and try to give them another shot down the line. We also will put a lot of starters as closers and closers as starters and will continue to use the best available arms we have.”
An arm of particular importance belongs to sophomore J.P. France. The Green Wave’s 2014 opening day starter struggled as a freshman after tossing a shutout in his first career outing, finishing with a 5.91 ERA and allowing 50 hits in 45 innings.
But the former Archbishop Shaw standout re-emerged this summer in the Cal Ripken League. As part of the first-place Bethesda Big Train, France didn’t surrender a run in 15 innings, striking out 17.
But before he could carry the momentum back to Tulane, France had minor elbow surgery, forcing him to miss all of fall practice.
“He’s been injured all fall, so he’ll throw (Tuesday) and he’s progressing,” Pierce said. “Right now, he’s kind of a wild card. Everything he gives us from this point forward is just a bonus.”
France said he thinks he should be ready to play early in the season, hoping to bolster a pitching staff thin on experience.
“I should be (ready),” he said. “I’m hoping to throw an inning (Tuesday), and if it feels good, I’ll come back and throw another couple of innings whenever they want me to and then hopefully be ready by the season.”
Pierce said one of his first duties upon being hired was to revamp the Green Wave’s schedule into one that would put it in optimal position to reach the NCAA tournament.
It started with eliminating as many games as possible against opponents rated below No. 150 in the RPI, which allowed him to add Creighton and Xavier. He also opted to take a second trip to California, scheduling UC-Riverside when a proposed American Athletic Conference weekend was scratched.
“The early part of the season is very critical when you look at the scheduling and how important it is with RPIs,” Pierce said. “We’ve prepared an (RPI-friendly) schedule. We have a great schedule, very balanced.”
Swisher swings by
The Tulane facilities had an air of professionalism during the winter with the appearance of Cleveland Indians outfielder Nick Swisher.
The former MLB all-star worked out in and around the Uptown campus, spending the offseason in New Orleans while his wife, JoAnna Garcia, was acting in a television production in the city.
“This is a place with awesome facilities. You have to stay in shape while you’re on the road, and this place was perfect for me,” Swisher said. “I think this team and this coaching staff are going to get this program back to the Tulane I remember from when I was playing in college (at Ohio State), when every year they were contending for the College World Series. It’s an awesome group and an awesome staff.
“I really can’t thank them enough for how well they’ve treated me and accepted me. I’ll definitely be pulling for them.”