Tulane baseball team visits Cincinnati for pivotal American Athletic Conference series _lowres

Advocate file photo by A.J. SISCO -- Tulane pitcher Corey Merrill

Tulane pitcher Corey Merrill went to coach David Pierce’s office Tuesday and pronounced himself ready for the rest of the year.

The visual evidence he provided in an intrasquad scrimmage was even more significant than his words.

Pierce said Merrill, a junior who had the third-best ERA (2.12) in the American Athletic Conference as a Friday starter last year, likely would fill the closer role this weekend at South Florida (21-23, 6-9 AAC). Merrill has missed six consecutive starts for Tulane (28-14) with a muscle issue in his forearm.

“He’s very close,” Pierce said Wednesday. “He’s probably a couple miles an hour off (from his previous fastball speed), but his competitive juices help him no matter what. The command is the last thing that comes, and he’s starting to get a little better feel after yesterday.”

Merrill’s primary feeling had been frustration since he last start against Texas on March 18. His arm bothered him in both innings he pitched before an overnight rain delay in the series opener, and he admitted Wednesday he would have been done anyway without the bad weather.

What appeared to be a temporary setback morphed into a long-term concern when he was not ready to return after two weeks of rest. Merrill, a big guy (6-foot-4, 235) who put up big numbers last year, has been limited to two relief appearances in the last 25 games, walking three in two innings of his most recent one against Central Florida on April 24.

“At first I didn’t really know exactly what the injury was,” he said. “We ended up finding out it was a muscle in my forearm, and it was just uncomfortable to pitch with. The big thing now is trying to keep that focus. I think I’m right on the edge of being fully back. It’s all going to come back with experience.”

Merrill, who did not allow a run in two of his first three starts, said he experienced some discomfort in his arm after beating Furman on March 11. The problem worsened during his weekly work in the bullpen at Nicholls State four days later and grew unmanageable at Texas.

Freshman Ross Massey replaced him when the game resumed the next day and went the rest of the way, pitching seven strong innings. With Massey ascension, there’s no place for Merrill in the rotation as he tries to regain his form.

The bullpen is another story. No one on the team has more than two saves.

“Corey coming back is big for us,” right fielder Lex Kaplan said. “He’ll be a big part of the bullpen for us. We need one more guy to step up. I think that will be Corey for sure.”

All or nothing

Tulane struck out 15 times against Houston last Saturday but still rallied to win 10-4, knocking out preseason AAC co-pitcher of the year Seth Romero with five runs in the fifth.

Nothing new there. Tulane has gone down on strikes 341 times in 42 games this year — the second-highest average in the AAC — but has produced a league-high 262 runs and 42 home runs.

“We’ve had a lot of strikeouts but also a lot of quality at-bats,” said Kaplan, who is third on the team with 29 whiffs and first in hits with 48. “We’re seeing the ball and it’s showing right now.”

Third baseman Hunter Hope, who set the school record for strikeouts with 73 a year ago, might break it again. His four Ks in five at-bats Saturday gave him 54 strikeouts.

But he also has a team-high 11 home runs — already the most for a Tulane player since 2010 — and a .302 batting average, second to Stephen Alemais’ team-best .339.

“He’s our offense in a nutshell,” Pierce said.

Dandy differential

Tulane hitters continue to blast balls out of the park with regularity while the pitchers keep them in play.

After the Houston series, the Wave ranked sixth nationally with a plus-29 home run differential — 42 to 13. Only Missouri State (plus-40), Coastal Carolina (plus-37), Southern Miss (plus-32), Southeastern Missouri (plus-30) and Alabama State (plus-30) were better.

“I attribute it to guys having the right swing plane and really working hard on their bodies outside of the season and then just confidence,” Pierce said.” We’re swinging the bat with authority. The reason why we don’t give us as many is a little baffling but more than anything we don’t give in. We’ll throw 3-1 breaking balls. We just don’t give in.”

Lagniappe

Tulane’s RPI of 35 (according to WarrenNolan.com) is the best in the AAC entering the weekend, one spot ahead of East Carolina. ... Although a maligned bullpen gave up six runs to lose a 6-4 lead against Houston last Friday, Patrick Duester has not given up a run in seven of his past nine appearances, and Sam Bjorngjeld has blanked opponents in six of his last even.