Coming off an opening-series win against 2015 super regional participant Illinois, the Tulane baseball team faces a different type of challenge this weekend.
On Thursday, the Green Wave flew to San Diego to participate in the inaugural Tony Gwynn Classic — an actual regular-season tournament rather than the traditional events labeled as “tournaments” that feature predetermined opponents and a declared champion.
Tulane (3-1) faces Arizona (2-2) at 3 p.m. Friday at Fowler Park in a quarterfinal game. The winner will play Saturday against the winner of a game between San Diego (0-3 entering a Thursday night game versus San Diego State) and Nebraska (1-2), with the losers meeting, too.
The winner of Tulane’s side of the bracket will advance to the championship Sunday against San Diego State, Bryant, Kentucky or UCSB.
Each team will play three times, with Sunday’s games determining the pecking order from first to eighth place. The format is the same as college basketball tournaments like the Maui Invitational.
“I love that we’re playing for something at the end,” Tulane coach David Pierce said. “Of course we play to win all the time, but the fact there will be a true winner at the end versus just playing games (in a round-robin format) is excellent.”
Tulane, ranked 20th by Collegiate Baseball magazine, is the only top-25 team in the field, but the Wave will have a formidable foe in Arizona left-hander J.C. Cloney.
Cloney allowed four hits and one run in seven innings with nine strikeouts and zero walks as the Wildcats won their opener at Rice 8-1. He was named Pac-12 Player of the Week for that performance, his first at Arizona after two dominant years at College of the Canyons.
“He commands the ball really well,” Pierce said. “He throws the fast ball to both sides of the plate. He probably tops out at 90 (mph), but he can throw the breaking ball and the changeup. He gets some downhill angles that create problems.”
Tulane will counter with Corey Merrill, one of three starters who combined to pitch 19.1 innings without allowing a run against Illinois. Merrill went six innings and gave up three hits with seven strikeouts and two walks.
“The big thing for me was command with all three of my pitches,” Merrill said. “I just wanted them to put the ball on the ground and let the guys behind me make plays. Whether it’s a high-scoring game or a low-scoring game, all I care about is winning.”
The tournament format will ratchet up the stakes. Instead of concentrating on winning a series, the champion will have to go 3-0.
“It’s going to be a blast for sure,” Merrill said. “It’s pretty much the next best thing to playing in the postseason. It’s a nice little experience for us to go into.”
The Illinois series provided a mixed bag, with Tulane’s stellar fielding (one error, five double plays) almost matching its perfect starting pitching. Meanwhile, the bullpen was brutal and the hitting was OK.
Freshman Ross Massey emerged as a viable reliever with four flawless innings against Alabama A&M on Tuesday, but the Wave’s batting average of .256 is barely better than last year’s tepid .253. Tulane also has struck out 39 times in 35 innings.
The clear exception is shortstop Stephen Alemais, an All-America candidate hitting .467 with only one strikeout in 18 plate appearances.
“We just need to go out there and have fun and play hard,” Alemais said. “We’re not worried at all. It’s going to be fun to watch when we’re all locked in.”
Games at the Tony Gwynn Classic will be played on the campuses of San Diego and San Diego State, with Saturday and Sunday locations and times to be determined. ... Pierce will stick with the rotation he used against Illinois — Alex Massey on Saturday and Emerson Gibbs on Sunday. ... Arizona has failed to make a regional since winning the College World Series in 2012.