After shoveling dirt on itself for most of the season, the surging Tulane baseball team needs to locate its long-lost broom.
Mired in 11th place despite winning six of its last eight games, the Green Wave likely has to sweep UAB on the road this weekend, then sweep Florida International at home next week to qualify for one of eight spots in the Conference USA tournament.
Sweeping any league opponent has been an enormous struggle for the Wave in the last six years, though.
Since the start of 2009, Tulane (21-25, 8-14 C-USA) has swept exactly one conference series — Southern Miss at Turchin Stadium in 2012 — tying lowly Marshall for the fewest in that span among long-time members.
“Baseball’s a funny game,” Tulane interim coach Jake Gautreau said. “It doesn’t matter what level you’re at. It’s really hard to sweep. It’s hard to get on a roll and win several in a row no matter what the situation is.”
Gautreau recognizes the daunting task ahead. He also believes his team has put itself in the best possible mindset with series wins against Wichita State and Southern Miss along with midweek victories against Nicholls State and Southeastern Louisiana.
“The last two weeks we’re playing our best baseball of the year and by far the most consistent baseball,” he said. “We are going in the right direction as a team, and it’s fun to watch. We know where we sit when it comes to the standings, but we’re going to continue to go out there and play clean, aggressive baseball.”
UAB (31-16, 16-8), which is two games behind C-USA-leading Rice, presents a formidable challenge. The Blazers boast one of the nation’s best weekend rotations in Chase Mallard (8-1, 1.24 ERA), Alex Luna (6-0 1.55) and Johnny Lieske (4-2. 2.39).
The Wave, which still ranks last in the conference in hitting despite a recent uptick, knows runs will be at a premium. The pressure will be on starting pitchers Corey Merrill, Randy LeBlanc and Tyler Mapes.
“Even if we score one or two runs in a game, we have complete confidence in our pitching staff that they can go out there and get the job done,” infielder Garrett Deschamp said. “It’s all about team baseball and scoring just enough runs to win.”
That’s what Tulane’s young lineup has accomplished lately. Freshman shortstop Stephen Alemais, one of seven first-year starters, had a two-run triple as the Wave took an early 3-0 lead on Southeastern and held on to win 3-2. Deschamp, a transfer from LSU-Eunice, has 12 hits in the last eight games, raising his average to a team-best .278.
“The ball’s been almost looking like a beach ball,” he said. “It’s the same thing for a lot of the younger guys. The talent’s always been there. It’s a great time for people to start getting hot.”
Hot enough to sweep? The rest of Conference USA has not been afflicted with Tulane’s malady.
UAB is coming off back-to-back sweeps of Marshall and Charlotte. Southern Miss has swept 12 opponents in the last six years. Rice is one behind with 11, and East Carolina is next with eight.
Even Memphis, which rarely was in the upper half of the league, swept six opponents from 2011-13 before departing for the American Athletic Conference.
“For whatever reason, we haven’t swept very often,” senior Tulane outfielder Andrew Garner said. “I really don’t know the reason. It’s just something strange the way it’s worked out. I guess the biggest thing is whenever we get two wins, we kind of get caught of guard.”
The Wave has won the first two games of two C-USA series this year, losing the finale to last-place Louisiana Tech 5-2 after scoring 28 runs Friday and Saturday and falling to Middle Tennessee State 5-4 after allowing one run Friday and Saturday.
If Tulane gets in the same position against UAB, Deschamp expects a different attitude thanks to the recent run of success.
“As a team we really haven’t put any pressure on ourselves,” he said. “Were just playing loose and everybody is having fun. As long as we keep doing that, we’re going to end the year with some good wins.”