Entering the softest part of its American Athletic Conference schedule, the Tulane baseball team still anticipates a hard road to the regular-season title.
Nothing has come easily for anyone in this balanced league, so why expect anything different down the stretch?
“It’s competitive,” freshman starting pitcher Ross Massey said. “There are a lot of good teams. Everyone knows they are going to get the other team’s best shot. Each week you have to be ready, because every team is capable of beating anybody.”
Those aren’t empty words. The results back up Massey’s assertion as Tulane (28-14, 8-5) heads to South Florida (21-23, 6-9) for a weekend series starting Friday before entertaining Memphis (15-30, 6-9) the following weekend.
Remarkably, only two of the AAC’s 20 series through five weeks of conference play ended in sweeps. The exceptions: Connecticut handled preseason favorite Houston in Storrs, and Tulane won three in a row at Central Florida.
Ten times, AAC teams have won the first two games of a weekend series. On eight of those occasions, they failed to seal the deal in the finale.
That’s why shortstop Stephen Alemais would purchase 2-1 series victories if they were up for bid in each of the final three weeks as the Green Wave tries to earn a conference championship for the first time in 11 years.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Any sweep would help us, but we’re going into every series just trying to win them for the rest of the year. If we do that, it will put us in good standing to win the league. To beat a team three times in a row is hard.”
The AAC’s aversion to sweeps is an anomaly. The Southeastern Conference has experienced sweeps in 16 of 48 series, and the ACC has done it 18 of 52 times.
Yet Memphis, rated 229th out of 300 Division I teams in the RPI calculations of WarrenNolan.com, has avoided sweeps with Sunday victories three weeks in a row. South Florida, with an RPI of 174, has not been swept, either.
“It’s because everyone can pitch,” Tulane coach David Pierce said. “Pitching and defense keeps you in the games. When you have guys on the mound that give you an opportunity to win either early or late, that’s what creates the parity. You’re not playing anybody in the league and getting any type of blowout.”
South Florida is Exhibit A in that category. Despite being tied for last with Memphis and Central Florida, the Bulls boast the AAC strikeout king in Saturday starter Brandon Lawson (4-3, 2.31 ERA, 83 Ks in 74 innings) and the reigning AAC pitcher of the week in Phoenix Sanders, who allowed two hits in eight innings of a 4-0 win against Central Florida last Friday. Also on hand is closer Tommy Eveld (1.83 ERA, 51 strikeouts in 39.1 innings), whose eight saves rank second in the league.
“We’re just trying to survive, and right now we’re just trying to win on Friday night,” Pierce said. “South Florida’s got a lot of pride and a lot of good players, so we’ve got to go to work.”
Most facets have been working for Tulane since its only series loss of the year to Cincinnati in mid-April. The Wave has won six of its past seven games, climbing to No. 16 in the D1Baseball.com poll. It cruised past Southern Miss and LSU at Turchin Stadium and limited Central Florida to four runs in three games during its rare conference sweep.
If anything, Tulane gained even more self-confidence while splitting two games against Houston last weekend, scoring 16 runs while facing the league’s top pitching duo of Andrew Lantrip and Seth Romero. The Wave outscored the Cougars 10-0 in the final five innings Saturday after spotting them a 4-0 lead.
“The fact that we were able to put up runs against Lantrip and Romero gives us a lot of confidence,” Alemais said. “Those are tough guys. We had some quality at-bats against two of the best pitchers in the country. That was big for us.”
The South Florida series could be a celebration of the strikeout. Bulls pitchers lead the league with 414 strikeouts, and their batters have struck out a conference-high 411 times. … The best matchup of the weekend could be Tulane catcher Jake Rogers versus South Florida base stealers Luke Maglich and Kevin Merrell. Maglich is 23-of-25 on stolen bases, and Merrell is 16-of-16. Rogers has thrown out 16 of 27 attempted base stealers.