The new-look Tulane baseball team hit almost all of coach Travis Jewett's preseason talking points, beating Horizon League favorite Wright State 4-3 in a promising opener on Friday night at Turchin Stadium.
Designated hitter Matt Rowland drew a five-pitch walk with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, providing the go-ahead run against a very capable opponent.
Wright State returned the bulk of the lineup and ace pitcher Ryan Weiss from a team that won two of three at eventual NCAA regional host Clemson to start 2017, but the Green Wave, coming off a disappointing 27-31 record in Jewett's debut season, lived up to his cautious optimism with a revamped roster.
"It looked like more of about four-or-five-weeks-into-the-season type of game," Jewett said. "I thought everybody played good baseball. It was a good start for us."
The list of positives was pretty long.
Command performance by Friday night starter Kaleb Roper? Check. After giving up four soft hits in his first time through the order, he retired 10 of the last 11 batters he faced in a strong outing, yielding only one run in five innings.
Timely hitting when the Green Wave needed it the most? Check. The Wave pieced together three hits in the second inning, including back-to-back RBI singles from Jonathon Artigues and Sal Gozzo at the bottom of the order after seventh-hole hitter Kody Hoese sacrificed runners to second and third.
Strong defense? Check. First baseman Trevor Jenson made a nice stab on a short-hop grounder to get out of the fifth with a runner in scoring position. Gozzo made an even niftier stab of a grounder up the middle at shortstop, starting a double play.
An infusion of athletic ability from left fielder Ty Johnson? He chased down Wright State's hardest hit ball on the warning track to end the sixth, preventing a double.
Catcher Acy Owen blasted a high home run over the right field wall off Weiss to lead off the fourth, providing Tulane some cushion with a 3-1 lead.
"He fooled me with a changeup first pitch, so I was thinking fastball inside." Owen said. "I got what I was looking for."
The only hiccup came when freshman relievers entered in the seventh inning. Brendan Cellucci gave up a single and hit a batter before being pulled. Josh Bates entered and walked the next batter, loading the bases with no outs.
After Bates induced an infield pop-up, Connor Pellerin forced in a run by hitting another batter, then walked in the tying run when he got squeezed on a 2-2 curve ball that came awfully close to backing over the plate.
"That's the game of baseball," Pellerin said. "You just wipe it off and say, so what, next pitch. There's nothing you can do. It's the umpire's call."
Pellerin, a Baton Rouge Episcopal product who had made Tulane hitters look silly at times in preseason practice, was alternately sharp and wild, but he got out of trouble in the bottom of the eight to earn the win. After walking first baseman Gabe Snyder with one out and throwing a wild pitch to advance him to second, he had him caught between second and third when he fielded a one-hop grounder but elected to throw to first for the second out.
The decision became moot when right fielder Kobi Owen caught a fly ball on the warning track, stranding Snyder at third.
"I definitely had a little jitters and adrenaline," Pellerin said. "But I kind of found it, so it was definitely good. Those one-run games really show you what kind of team you are. It was a lot of fun."
Will McAffer, a junior college transfer, worked around a one-out single and stolen base in the ninth to pick up the save. Owen caught another fly on warning track along the way.
"We took two punches in that game, and we punched back," Jewett said. "That's a championship characteristic of a team. I didn't see any panic."
The two teams will play again Saturday at 4:30, with former Holy Cross graduate transfer Ben White on the mound for Tulane against left-hander Zane Collins for Wright State.