After winning two of three from Texas on its first trip to Austin since 1983, the Tulane baseball team will try to keep it going against a much more familiar foe.
When the Green Wave (13-7) faces Southern Miss (16-5) at 7:05 p.m. Tuesday at MGM Park in Biloxi, Mississippi, the teams will be meeting for the 36th consecutive year. The Golden Eagles are Tulane’s longest continuing opponent other than LSU, and coach David Pierce has no intention of letting the rivalry die.
Tulane left Conference USA for the American Athletic Conference last year, but the Wave and Golden Eagles will play each other in midweek games for the foreseeable future.
“Both teams have a rich history, a lot of pride and play the game the right way,” Pierce said. “We’re pretty evenly matched right now.”
Their history is strikingly similar. Tulane reached nine consecutive regionals and two College World Series from 1998 to 2006 under Rick Jones before sliding. Southern Miss made nine straight regional appearances from 2003 to 2011 and went to Omaha in 2009, but the Golden Eagles are in a four-year drought under Scott Berry, who has been at the school as an assistant or head coach since 2001.
Tulane leads the series 93-59, but since 2003 it is even at 23 victories apiece. Both teams have finished below .500 only once this century.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Scott Berry and a lot of respect for the program,” Pierce said. “They make you better. Any time you get challenged like that, you learn from it, and that’s the intent.”
Southern Miss beat Tulane 8-4 both in New Orleans and Hattiesburg in 2015 but barely missed out on a postseason bid while the Wave stopped its six-year skid in Pierce’s first year.
In Monday’s D1Baseball.com rankings, Tulane and Southern Miss were among nine teams in the “also considered category for the top 25. The Golden Eagles have hit 26 home runs, tied for sixth-most in the country, while allowing only 10. The Wave has 20 homers, tied for 23rd-best, while allowing only four. Southern Miss averages 7.2 runs. Tulane averages 6.5.
“They are a powerful team,” Pierce said. “They are the only team I’ve seen that’s hit more home runs than us. Their park is maybe more conducive (to long balls than MGM Park, a new Class AA minor league facility), but they have power throughout their lineup.”
The X-factor for the Wave could be the status of shortstop Stephen Alemais. After missing nine games with an injured left shoulder, he returned Sunday against Texas as a mid-inning defensive replacement in the seventh with the score tied at 2. Tulane won 5-3, and he walked with the bases loaded in his only plate appearance.
“He was ready to go defensively, and I knew late in the game we were going to utilize him if we were in a position to win,” Pierce said. “Offensively, if his slot was going to come up, he was going to drag bunt no matter what. He attempted a drag bunt to third and then a drag bunt to first and then drew the walk, which was a huge RBI.”
Before getting hurt, Alemais was hitting a team-best .462 with 12 RBIs in his first nine games.
“He’s taking full batting practice right now, and he’s very close,” said Pierce, who added Jake Willsey would start at shortstop if Alemais were not ready. “If he’s not there (Tuesday), we’re hoping for this weekend.”
Redshirt sophomore J.P. France, who has struck out 15 while allowing two runs over 10 innings in the past two weeks, will start for Tulane. Southern Miss counters with Houston Case, a right-hander who has pitched 3.1 innings in two appearances.