CLEARWATER, Fla. — Tulane took its second gut punch in less than 24 hours at the American Athletic Conference baseball tournament.
The question now is whether the Green Wave has done enough to make an NCAA regional for the first time in seven years.
Tulane led Connecticut by four runs in an elimination game and had closer Ian Gibaut on the mound before the Huskies surged for five runs in the bottom of the eighth and held on to stun the Wave 7-6 on Friday afternoon at Bright House Field. Tulane (34-23) will have to wait three long days to find out whether it receives an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament after following a tournament-opening victory against UConn (34-24) with back-to-back emotional losses.
“It has a lot to do with what happens around the country (in other conference tournaments),” said first-year Tulane coach David Pierce, who went to NCAA regionals with Sam Houston State the past two seasons after the exact same exits in the Southland Conference tournament. “I think our résumé was good coming in. I really feel like the one win gives us a great opportunity to be there.”
Tulane certainly looked like it would be in Clearwater another day after Gibaut got a groundout with the bases loaded to preserve a 3-2 lead in the sixth and the Wave followed with three runs in the seventh.
But Gibaut, who had not allowed a run in eight consecutive appearances, including a two-inning stint against UConn on Wednesday, allowed four hits in the eighth as UConn closed within 6-5. Emerson Gibbs, who was supposed to start Saturday if Tulane remained in the tournament, replaced Gibaut and promptly left a curveball up, surrendering a two-run homer to cleanup hitter Joe Deroche-Duffin.
Just like that, Tulane trailed 7-6. When Tyler Wilson struck out in the ninth, the Wave’s time in the tournament had ended.
“This is the toughest loss we’ve experienced at Tulane,” said sophomore shortstop Stephen Alemais, whose double in the seventh gave the Wave a 5-2 lead. “Some things you can’t put into words right now. The key was just a couple of mistake pitches, and the game changed.”
Gibaut insisted he did not get tired, and he received one bad break when a looper in the infield from No. 9 hitter Eric Yavarone (batting average: .164) slapped a low, fast hop off the lip of the infield grass that got past second baseman Garrett Deschamp. The Huskies followed with back-to-back doubles — one over right fielder Lex Kaplan’s head and the other down the left-field line — to chase Gibaut.
“I felt good to go,” Gibaut said. “They found a few holes, I guess. I threw them on the side of the plate, but just up. I don’t know. Stuff like (Yavarone’s hit) happens. There’s not much to say about it. It was a bad bounce.”
Deroche-Duffin’s blast off Gibbs (5-3) was a no-doubter, sailing well over the left-field wall.
“We had to bring in Gibaut a little sooner than we wanted, but we were going to empty every tank to win today,” Pierce said. “We had no worries about tomorrow.”
Tulane played without starting second baseman Jake Willsey, reserve Nico Symington and third-base coach Sean Allen, all of whom served automatic suspensions after being ejected Thursday against East Carolina in a wild eighth inning in which two runners were thrown out the plate trying to tie the score.
Willsey’s replacement in the lineup, Hunter Hope, had two run-scoring doubles and a single as everything went the Wave’s way until the eighth-inning implosion. Hope figures to remain a starter if the Wave keeps playing because Willsey was suspended four games for bumping into the home plate umpire after being ejected. Allen was suspended for three games because he had been thrown out of a game earlier this year.
A Tulane spokesman said the Wave planned to appeal Allen’s ban, but player suspensions cannot be appealed.
“(Hope) was outstanding,” Pierce said. “We’ve talked in the last month about guys stepping up and making plays. Hopefully we can carry that on into a regional.”
Tulane overcame a rough first inning when Alex Massey walked three batters. The third one forced in a run with the bases loaded, and UConn scored a second run on a sacrifice fly before Massey registered a strikeout to prevent further damage.
The rest of the day was all Tulane — until the eighth inning.
Instead of dwelling on Thursday’s emotional loss, the Wave drove the ball to all parts of Bright House Field, tying the score in the second, going ahead on Hope’s second double in the fourth and adding three more in the seventh.
When Alemais scored on a wild pitch to make the score 6-2, no one could have envisioned the water cooler bath Deroche-Duffin received from a teammate in UConn’s postgame celebration.
“In tournament play like this, teams aren’t going away,” Pierce said. “You have to keep punching at them. I don’t think we quit punching. They had some tough at-bats. They are a very good, veteran team, and they had a great will not to give up.”
Tulane has not given up hope its season will continue. As the third-place team in the third-rated RPI league with a schedule ranked 37th nationally, the Wave has checked some key regional-worthy boxes that one rough inning might not erase.
“Hopefully,” Pierce said, “the committee looks at our entire body of work.”