Tulane reached its first NCAA baseball regional since 2008 with solid pitching, sheer tenacity and occasional timely hitting under new coach David Pierce last season.
As practice for year No. 2 opened Friday, the Green Wave expected a huge boost at the plate, which it will need to reach ambitious goals that include an American Athletic Conference championship and a trip to the College World Series.
No other team that received an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament finished lower nationally than Tulane in runs scored (200th out of 301 Division I schools with 261) or batting average (254th, .253), but the addition of Texas transfer Jeremy Montalbano and former LSU player Jarrett DeHart could make a huge difference for a roster that returns almost intact.
Montalbano, who played for the Longhorns in 2013 and 2014 before sitting out last season under NCAA transfer rules, tore it up in fall baseball.
DeHart, a lefty batter who played sparingly for LSU in 2014, hit .369 with 16 home runs for Howard College last season.
After scoring a total of three runs in two lopsided losses to UNC Wilmington at the Baton Rouge regional last May, the Wave clearly had to upgrade its offense
“I think we’re there,” said junior shortstop Stephen Alemais, Tulane’s lone .300 hitter (.312) in 2015 and a second-team preseason All-America selection by D1Baseball.com. “We had a lot of missing pieces last year. If you look at our lineup, I don’t see too many big holes in it now. When we were playing this fall, we had people who could hit back-to-back-to-back.”
Tulane boasts tremendous depth on the mound, with top-four starters Corey Merrill, Alex Massey, Emerson Gibbs and Patrick Duester back along with a healthy J.P. France, who may possess the best stuff on the staff but missed last season while recovering from elbow surgery.
A lineup that can lace the ball would complete the package.
“It’s just going to be nice to see, day in and day out, that we have an opportunity to score,” Pierce said. “They (Montalbano and DeHart) truly add a presence in the box. Guys are really going to have to pitch right against them, and that’s going to free up some opportunities for others.”
Montalbano did not put up good numbers at Texas, losing his starting job while hitting .171 as a sophomore. He says the change of scenery has revitalized him.
“I can help us drive in some runs,” he said. “We have the makeup to be a very good hitting team this year. The sky’s the limit.”
The Wave received more good news with the return to health of outfielders Lex Kaplan and Grant Brown.
Kaplan led the team with seven home runs but had shoulder surgery after getting injured in a summer league game. He has been cleared to play this spring, ending fears he would have to be redshirted.
Brown underwent shoulder surgery after getting hurt diving for a ball last February, cutting short his sophomore season following 11 games. Tulane also returns outfielder Richard Carthon, designated hitter Hunter Williams, third baseman Hunter Hope, catcher Jake Rogers and second baseman Jake Willsey, among others.
“The strength of our team is truly in numbers,” Pierce said. “Unfortunately, we can only play nine, DH one and pitch one. We’re definitely deeper.”