This isn’t the time to be shorthanded.
Entering its first NCAA tournament since 2008, the Tulane baseball program is back on center stage after a prolonged absence. But one notable member of the Green Wave (34-23) won’t be appearing at the Baton Rouge regional until the latter half of the weekend, if at all.
Starting second baseman Jake Willsey still has three games remaining on his four-game suspension, which will keep him away from Alex Box Stadium unless Tulane reaches the regional’s final two games.
The Green Wave begins its quest at 7 p.m. Friday against UNC-Wilmington before matching up with either top-seeded LSU or No. 4 Lehigh on Saturday.
Willsey’s suspension was the combination of two penalties that combined into four games. In Tulane’s 3-1 loss against East Carolina in the American Athletic Conference tournament, Willsey was ejected, triggering an automatic one-game suspension, for arguing the strike zone with home-plate umpire Chris Ward.
After the ejection, Ward said Willsey also bumped him during the argument, leading to an additional three-game penalty. As part of the incident, Tulane third-base coach Sean Allen, who said he ran toward the plate to calm an incensed Willsey, was also ejected and suspended for three games.
While Tulane coach David Pierce said Tulane protested the ruling, he was awarded no leniency by either the NCAA or the American Athletic Conference, which upheld their initial rulings.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Allen, who coaches hitting and infielders. “But we are just going to adjust. And these guys haven’t let anything stop them all year, so I don’t think this will change anything for us as a team. I know I’d like to be out there, and Jake really wants to be out there, but we have plenty of guys capable of filling in.”
Replacing Willsey’s bat may be the most difficult task. The sophomore led all Tulane hitters with a .333 average and .425 on base percentage in 22 conference games (20 starts), and his 10 RBIs during those games ranked second on the team.
However, Tulane is replacing him with arguably its most powerful hitter and sure-handed glove in sophomore Hunter Hope.
Pierce said he expects the former starting third baseman to slide back into his position after Garrett Deschamp shifts from first base to Willsey’s spot at second and starting third baseman Tyler Wilson moves across the diamond to first.
Hope started 46 games for Tulane this season but was moved to the bench after his batting average in conference games dipped to .188 and strikeout total ballooned to a school record 67. However, several teammates said Hope took the demotion in stride. And when his chance to return to the order arrived, he laced three hits, including a pair of run-scoring doubles in Tulane’s 7-6 loss to UConn.
“He never let it get to him, and he honestly saw it more as a break than anything else. And I think it’s going to make him a lot better going into the tournament,” Wilson said. “He probably has the best power on the team, and he may have the best glove, so even though we would love it if Jake could play, it’s pretty great to have Hunter in there and ready to go.”
Deschamp is no stranger to second base either, spending most of the 2014 season there. And Wilson has spent most of his career at first, meaning there won’t be any real discomfort despite the sudden jolt to the Green Wave’s typical starting lineup.
“This is the great thing about this team is that we are really versatile,” Deschamp said. “Tyler Wilson is a great first baseman. And now we are getting Hope back in, who adds a whole new dimension to our offense. He can put the ball in the gap or over the fence. And even though this isn’t the way we wanted it to happen, I don’t think this is going to slow us down at all.”