Tulane and Pepperdine are baseball teams in transition entering their season opener Friday afternoon in Malibu, California — but for completely different reasons.
Pepperdine lost four first-team All-West Coast players, including pitcher of the year and two-way phenom Aaron Brown, from last year’s team, which came within one inning of reaching the College World Series.
Tulane returns most of its key players but has a new coach, David Pierce, after failing to even qualify for the Conference USA baseball tournament.
The only certainty as the Green Wave left New Orleans on Thursday was this: No one had any idea what would happen in this weekend’s three-game series.
“We just want them to play the right way, whether that means winning no games, one game, two games or three games,” Pierce said. “It’s been a whirlwind seven months (since he was hired). I can’t wait for Friday.”
At this point, Pierce said he’s more concerned with the process than the results. He inherited a team that stopped hitting in the first month of last season, losing 28 of its final 44 games after starting 7-1. Whether that implosion was from a lack of ability or a lack of confidence is unclear, but players say Pierce is pushing the right buttons.
“We used to go up to the plate wondering if we were going to get a hit,” senior first baseman Garrett Deschamp said. “We stay late now, we come early, and it’s going to show on the field. We expect to succeed, and that’s the big difference. We are more confident. We put in the work, and that will show.”
Pepperdine, picked second behind Loyola Marymount in the West Coast Conference, is a step up on the opening-weekend competition Tulane usually faced under former coach Rick Jones. Still, the Waves will be hard-pressed to match last year’s 43-18 record.
It won’t be easy to replace Brown, who went 13-1 with a 1.95 ERA. He also led the Waves with 49 RBIs, 13 home runs and 13 doubles as a starting center fielder, guiding them to their first Super Regional since the current college baseball playoff format started in 1999.
After splitting the first two games in that Super Regional, they led TCU 5-4 entering the top of the ninth inning of the decisive third game before giving up two runs and losing a 6-5 heartbreaker in Fort Worth, Texas.
Freshman All-America catcher Aaron Barnett, who hit .359, returns along with preseason All-Conference infielder Hutton Moyer. But Pepperdine also lost Corey Miller, who threw three complete games and had a team-best 1.90 ERA.
The Waves’ rotation this weekend will be A.J. Puckett, who started one game in 2014, lone returning starter Jackson McClellan (8-3, 3.48 ERA) and freshman left-hander Ryan Wilson.
Tulane’s pitchers are unproven, too.
Friday starter Corey Merrill went 0-5 as a freshman while getting almost no run support in 14 appearances. He had a respectable 3.60 ERA but needs to improve his control after walking 27 in 55 innings last year.
Saturday starter Alex Massey will try to recapture his promising form of 2012. Massey, a Baton Rouge native, sat out all of 2013 with an shoulder injury and struggled with his control for most of 2014, compiling an ERA of 5.79.
Sunday’s starter, Tim Yandel, came at Tulane as a position player before pitching 18 innings in relief last year.
With all the unknown factors, Pierce is ready to start getting some answers.
“Everything we’ve done has been in preparation for our opening day against Pepperdine,” he said. “We are just really thrilled to death to get this thing started. When you look at schedule and how important it is with the RPI, the early part of the season is critical.”