Finally out of last place halfway through the American Athletic Conference schedule, Tulane (24-16, 5-7 AAC) has loftier goals for the rest of the season.
The Green Wave’s relatively high RPI (41st according to WarrenNolan.com) is the primary reason it could be poised to make a run at an NCAA regional for the first time in seven years.
“It’s a big part of our strategy,” coach David Pierce said. “You look at positioning yourself in multiple ways. You want to do well in the nonconference, and that’s why Tuesday games are so important. At the end of the season, the committee looks at your body of work. I want the players to be educated and understand it and know that every game is important for different reasons.”
Tulane sophomore shortstop Stephen Alemais said he knew nothing about the RPI when Pierce arrived this past summer. The subject never came up last season as the Green Wave floundered to its first losing record in 21 years.
Alemais, and his teammates, are much more informed now because Pierce stresses the RPI frequently.
With the surprising strength of the AAC, Tulane will get plenty of chances to build its résumé in the second half of the conference schedule. The league is the third-toughest nationally according to the RPI calculations of WarrenNolan.com, ahead of the Pac-12 and Big 12 while ranking behind only the Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Green Wave, coming off its first conference series win against RPI No. 49 Central Florida, still has weekend series with No. 28 Houston (home), No. 22 South Florida and No. 52 Memphis.
“We just got a lot of confidence in that we beat a really good team,” Alemais said. “We are going to keep playing hard and hopefully win more series. We’re staying positive and staying aggressive.”
As a 6-0 loss at LSU on Tuesday reaffirmed, Tulane hardly is a juggernaut. The top-ranked Tigers used nine pitchers to one-hit the Wave.
But through a combination of good pitching, (mostly) solid fielding and some timely hitting, Tulane has not buried itself before the end of April as in recent seasons.
“This is where we want to be,” said redshirt junior pitcher Alex Massey, who has allowed four earned runs in 25.1 innings of AAC play. “My goal since I’ve been here has always been to make the postseason. It’s just a matter of us going out there and winning games. That’s our main focus right now.”
Massey is one of four reliable starters in the rotation, including fellow weekend guys Corey Merrill and Emerson Gibbs and usual midweek starter Patrick Duester, who held LSU to one earned run in five innings on Tuesday. Tulane’s 2.80 ERA ranks second in the AAC behind Connecticut’s 2.76, and the Wave already has tied a school record for shutouts in a season with eight.
Despite committing four errors against LSU, Tulane is third in the AAC in fielding percentage (.971), one-hundredth of a point behind co-leaders UConn and Cincinnati. Catcher Jake Rogers has thrown out a higher percentage of base stealers (26 out of 41) than anyone else in the league, and right fielder Lex Kaplan (five assists) has made plenty of runners hold up while rounding third base with his powerful, accurate arm.
“It’s awesome to be in this position,” Rogers said. “When we’re good, everything is on. Pitching has been doing really well, the defense has been really good and we had really good at-bats in the UCF series. I think we’re going to keep it up.”
Actually, hitting has held Tulane down. The Wave ranks second to last in the AAC in batting average (.242), runs scored, slugging percentage and on-base percentage, last in doubles and home runs and second in strikeouts.
Alemais is the only Wave player above .300 (.317), and Tulane has gone scoreless five times.
Still, the bats have come through on some important occasions, including four early season victories when the Wave trailed after eight innings.
“The biggest thing is consistency for us,” Alemais said. “We have games where we play really good defense and games where we really hit well. It’s just putting it all together the rest of the year.”
Tulane’s best success has come in midweek games, with a 7-3 mark. The Wave is 2-0 against Southland Conference leader Southeastern Louisiana and handed UNC Wilmington its last loss, 8-4, on March 31, before the Seahawks won 10 in a row to climb into the Top 25 of several polls.
That’s where Pierce’s emphasis on the RPI has helped the most. As he has pointed out to his players, nonconference and conference games are equally important in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee.
To make the postseason, though, Tulane likely needs to reach at least .500 in conference play.
“We still have time,” Alemais said. “We have to play every game hard.”