Pivotal losses always prompt more questions than answers.
When those ugly defeats happen on a Sunday, to lose a conference series, those inquiries only become more pronounced, as they did following Tulane’s 7-4 loss to Cincinnati in the series finale at Turchin Stadium.
What happened to the Green Wave’s once-imposing hitting? Does Tulane (22-13, 4-4 American) have a reliable third starter? Will No. 22 Tulane fall out of the Top 25?
The answer to the final question is likely yes. Just six days after breaking into most major polls for the first time all season, a 1-3 week reversed Tulane’s momentum. Tulane entered Sunday with an opportunity to jump atop the AAC standings, but instead it concludes the week in fifth place.
“It’s not so much about that; it’s the first (weekend) series we have lost all year,” coach David Pierce said. “It’s more about our team, and much more about playing together and playing smart, and relaxing and playing. We’re in a tough league, and we understand that. We can go one of two directions, and hopefully the team chooses to go in the right direction and get behind each other.”
The aggravation boiled over for at least one Green Wave hitter. Stephen Alemais removed his helmet, slammed it on the turf three times and loudly exclaimed after grounding into a sixth-inning double play, prompting his removal from the game by Pierce.
It was emblematic of Tulane’s difficult week.
“It’s frustrating, because we know what we are capable of,” second baseman Jake Willsey said. “Last year, we weren’t capable of what we were doing at the plate earlier this year. We know we have a lineup this year that’s very good, so to put together a streak of a few games where we can’t get hits or get them together, it’s just frustrating because we have the talent.”
Until the eighth inning of Sunday’s game, Tulane’s only offensive production over the weekend came via a trio of solo home runs. And Hunter Williams’ fifth-inning blast would be the most significant moment of excitement for the Green Wave’s hitting Sunday afternoon.
Yet it only lightly shaved into Cincinnati’s lead, which the Bearcats grabbed three batters into the game.
Tulane starter Alex Massey failed to match the dominance of his younger brother, Ross, who threw a shutout Saturday. Instead, Cincinnati snapped a 15-inning scoreless skid when a leadoff single preceded Connor McVey’s towering two-run homer over the protective net in left field.
An inning later, the Bearcats slapped a pair of singles off Massey before taking advantage of a howling wind to left: No. 9 hitter Vince Augustine lifted a three-run homer off the scoreboard, pushing the lead to 5-0.
Those two swings spelled doom for Massey, who suffered his second consecutive loss. The senior lasted just two innings, surrendering five runs on five hits, despite striking out four. In his past 7.1 innings, Massey has allowed nine earned runs, inflating his ERA to 5.86.
“His preparation is better than anybody on our team, and his mentality is right. He just has to quit giving that hitter that one pitch to hit,” Pierce said. “And every hitter seems to know what is coming and they get one pitch to hit.”
Tulane ace Corey Merrill came out of the bullpen to make his first appearance since March 17 after missing his past four starts with a strained muscle in his forearm. He allowed an unearned run in his lone inning and admitted his fastball isn’t back at normal velocity yet.
Merrill said he didn’t expect to take the mound next week in his typical Friday night spot.
“I only tossed a little bit and hadn’t been able to get on the mound and let it rip for four weeks, so it’s natural to be a little down,” he said. “It shouldn’t take too long to get 100 percent back, hopefully. I felt fine from a health standpoint today; now I just have to get my strength back up.”
Tulane now pivots to Tuesday, when it hosts Southern Miss in a critical nonconference matchup at 6:30 p.m.
“It’s on us to get this turned around,” Willsey said. “We just have to stay focused and know what we’re capable of.”