After carrying the team for most of the year, Tulane’s starting pitchers need a lift of their own entering the Baton Rouge regional.
Their overall numbers are gaudy, but their control has been awful lately. To make a run at No. 1 seed LSU, Corey Merrill, Alex Massey and Co. cannot afford to walk the third-seeded Green Wave right out of Alex Box Stadium.
Merrill, who leads the American Athletic Conference with a 2.04 ERA, issued free passes to the first or second player he faced in each of the first three innings against East Carolina on Thursday in the AAC tournament. He left in the fifth after throwing 87 pitches and has walked 11 in his past three starts, raising his total to 42 in 97 innings.
Massey, a Baton Rouge-Catholic product who was 5-1 in AAC play with a 3.10 ERA, labored through 5.2 innings against Connecticut on Friday, walking seven while throwing 119 pitches. Two weeks earlier, he walked six in 4.2 innings against South Florida, and his total of 45 free passes in 85.1 innings is an even worse ratio than Merrill’s.
The issue is easily correctable, Tulane coach David Pierce insisted.
“Both of them are truly strike-throwers,” he said. “What happens is, they start trying to make the perfect pitch early in the count instead of making solid repeatable pitches. That’s the message this week: Don’t try to be perfect. Try to be good, just attack and believe in your stuff, but really once you make a quality pitch, try to just repeat that quality pitch.”
Tulane (34-23) has made plenty of quality pitches this year, ranking 27th nationally with a 3.13 ERA. Its four regular starters — Merrill, Massey, Emerson Gibbs and Patrick Duester — sport a combined 2.60 ERA. UNC-Wilmington, the Wave’s Friday night opponent, has a 4.43 ERA with no regular starter below 4.42.
The Wave figures to go as far as those guys can take it, which was not far enough in the AAC tournament. Closer Ian Gibaut pitched the final two innings of a 3-1 victory against UConn in the opener, then had to return in the sixth inning two days later against the Huskies. He ran out of gas in the eighth as UConn erased a 6-2 deficit to win 7-6.
Pierce is looking for longer stints from his starters this weekend. He pointed to two teams that won conference tournaments to earn spots in the field of 64: Houston Baptist, which had four consecutive complete-game performances in the Southland, and Texas, which had three in a row before finally going to its bullpen in the seventh inning of the Big 12 title game.
As recently as the last regular-season series, Massey went the distance in a seven-inning victory against Memphis. It was one of only three complete games the Wave has thrown, testing a thin bullpen that does not go much beyond Gibaut (2.98 ERA, nine saves) and Dan Rankin.
“It’s about creating that ability to get deep in games to utilize the bullpen the right way,” Pierce said. “When we have to go to a bullpen guy early, it affects the entire rotation.”
Making opponents work for their offense rather than handing it to them is priority No. 1. Although Tulane has improved at the plate in recent weeks, raising its batting average to .252 from the low .240s, it ranks in a tie for 223rd nationally in runs, the second-lowest total for any regional team.
“The main thing is just filling up the zone,” Merrill said. “That’s the one thing I have to keep my mind on. Once I do that, the rest will play out for itself. I’ve been letting it all get to my head, trying to make the perfect pitch.”
Clearly, Pierce’s message on that topic has been pitch perfect because Massey echoed Merrill’s words.
“In some games, I try to do too much and try to make the pitches too perfect, and that’s something that comes back to bite me,” Massey said. “We are focusing on staying smooth and trusting your stuff and hitting (catcher Jake Rogers’) mitt.”
Duester (2.44 ERA), who pitched seven innings in the AAC tournament opener, has struggled with his control, too. His walk total is reasonable — 29 in 66.1 innings — but he also has plunked 11 batters.
Only Gibbs (2.81 ERA), with 19 walks in 77 innings, has kept his control all year. He would love to get the opportunity to atone for the game-winning home run he allowed to UConn last Friday in a rare relief appearance.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve replayed that pitch in my head,” he said. “It’s nice to finally take a deep breath. We made a regional, we start from scratch and it feels good.”