This is the way Tulane has wanted to play for nearly a month.
Yet even when the Green Wave fixed many of the problems that persisted during its prolonged slump, it still wasn’t enough to topple Rice on Friday. Tulane dropped the series opener 4-3 at Turchin Stadium.
The Owls (23-12, 10-5 Conference USA) did just enough to keep the Green Wave (14-18, 6-9) at arm’s length, as Tulane lost for the seventh time in its past eight games. While the result didn’t change, the reaction from the Green Wave’s coaching staff stood in stark contrast from its comments following Tulane’s past two defeats, which were criticized for being uncompetitive and sluggish.
“You are never pleased with a loss, but I thought we played a good baseball game tonight,” said interim coach Jake Gautreau, who is completing the season in ailing Rick Jones’ absence. “It was definitely a step in the right direction. ... I thought our at-bats were better and I thought our energy level was better. I thought, overall, it was a better-played baseball game.”
Just days after being promoted to the ace position of Tulane’s pitching rotation, Randy LeBlanc immediately found himself in trouble. Rice laced a trio of singles past LeBlanc and into center field, resulting in a pair of runs and an early Owls lead.
However, unlike the past few weeks when a quick deficit caused the Green Wave to crater, the team immediately responded by posting a run of its own in the bottom of the inning. Andrew Garner took advantage of Garrett Deschamp’s two-out walk by shooting a run-scoring double into right-center gap to cut the Owls’ lead to 2-1.
The deficit wasn’t shrunk for long. Rice’s Chase McDowell led off the second by lifting a solo home run into right field.
Again, Tulane responded. Deschamp blasted a solo homer of his own to start Tulane’s half of the fourth inning, shaving Rice’s lead to 3-2.
Yet just when it appeared LeBlanc had settled in, retiring nine consecutive batters, Rice’s offense stirred again in the seventh. Shane Hoelscher singled to right to start the inning and was moved to second on sacrifice bunt.
After an intentional walk, LeBlanc was pulled from the game after Connor Teykl punched another run-scoring single through the middle, extending Rice’s lead to 4-2.
And just when it looked like Tulane was ready to cut into the deficit again, the Owls stood up defensively to stop it. Hunter Hope was gunned down at the plate when he tried to score off of Nick DiMaggio’s two-out double down the right-field line.
Although video replay showed Hope slid his hand across the plate before the tag, Gautreau’s arguments with home plate umpire Scott Wilkerson were to no avail.
“I just told him I thought the tag was a little high and I thought Hope got his left hand in there,” Gautreau said. “He said he had a really good angle and that he was out. You can’t go back and change the call, but that was definitely a big call for us.”
It actually grew in magnitiude an inning later when Tulane’s Jake Rogers scored on Hoelscher’s throwing error, cutting the lead to 4-3 rather than tying the score.
But that was as close as the Green Wave got. While the effort and determination were applauded by Gautreau after the game, it didn’t move Tulane any closer to jockeying for a place in the Conference USA tournament — or avoiding a losing record for the first time since 1993.
Tulane will have another chance to help in those pursuits at 2 p.m. Saturday when senior Tyler Mapes will start for the Wave in the second game of the series.
“We just have to be better,” LeBlanc said. “It doesn’t matter if we lose by 10 or lose by one. We have to come back tomorrow and try to find a way to get a win.”