First place and Tulane baseball have not been in the same sentence for a long time.
The Green Wave missed a huge opportunity to change that status Friday night, losing 2-1 to Cincinnati at Turchin Stadium in a battle at the top of the American Athletic Conference standings.
Tulane (21-12, 3-3 AAC) lost its third in a row for the second time this year, while Cincinnati (17-18, 5-2), which was picked last by the league’s coaches in the preseason, padded its early lead in the conference.
With mist turning to steady rain on a windy night, Lex Kaplan led off the ninth with a single but never got past first base. He would have stolen second on a hit and run with one out, but Hunter Williams foul-tipped it before striking out on the next pitch. Jake Willsey then fouled out meekly to the catcher.
Promoted to Friday night starter for the first time in his career, senior Emerson Gibbs (3-2) pitched into trouble in the early innings before settling down to give the Wave a terrific chance to win.
Andrew Zellner (4-2), who had given up zero runs in three of last four starts, allowed one unearned run over 5.2 innings for Cincinnati. A.J. Kullman pitched the rest of the way to earn his first save.
Cincinnati’s Cole Murphy, a .143 hitter, led off the third by blasting a towering home run down the right field line into a stiff wind. It was only the second long ball Gibbs had allowed and the second homer for Murphy.
Gibbs appeared to prevent further damage when he picked off ninth-hole hitter Vince Augustine at second after a one-out double, but two singles around a rare error by second baseman Jake Willsey allowed the Bearcats to go ahead 2-0.
Gibbs retired 13 in a row from there, throwing a career-high 124 pitches before leaving after eight innings. He exhibited his usual control, walking one, and struck out eight.
Tulane cut the deficit in half on Jeremy Montalbano’s fifth home run in the fourth — a shot to straight left field — but the Wave came up empty with runners in scoring position.
Tulane entered with a .228 batting average in its last 10 games and managed only five hits.
Predictably, the struggles have been even more pronounced against Friday conference starters. The Green Wave has 10 hits off of them in 20.2 innings through three series.
Willsey tripled off the top of the wall in left center with one out in the third but stayed on third base when Richard Carthon and Stephen Alemais struck out.
“That was the difference in the game,” coach David Pierce said. “We have to make contact when we’re on third base with less than two outs. We could have easily won the game 2-1, but we lost 2-1.”
Willsey sacrificed Williams to second in the fifth, but Carthon popped out and Alemais, after hammering a hanging curve foul, flied out to right field.
Catcher Jake Rogers did his part to give the Wave a chance, throwing out one runner who tried to steal second and picking off Manny Rodriguez at third in the eighth.
Center fielder Grant Witherspoon helped out, too, running to the warning track in dead centerfield to track down another blast from Murphy and making a diving catch in front of him for the third out in the top of the ninth.
The hits just never came. Again.
“We weren’t having quality at-bats,” Kaplan said. “Gibbs pitched awesome. Two runs, we need to have more run support than that. We just need to relax. It’s one game of a three-game series. We know we can hit. I’m not worried about it.”