Only 15 months after becoming Tulane’s baseball coach, it is almost as if Travis Jewett started all over again when fall ball began in mid-October.
Gone is a tremendous senior class that accomplished plenty in 2015 and 2016 under former coach David Pierce, but not much in 2017 while playing for its fourth coach in four years.
Version No. 2 of the Jewett’s Green Wave looks nothing like his disappointing 27-31 first season, with 23 new players among the 40 practicing at Turchin Stadium as Tulane tries to replace seven of its top eight hitters, two weekend starting pitchers and its closer.
Familiar names like outfielder Grant Witherspoon, shortstop Sal Gozzo and pitchers Ross Massey and Chase Solesky are few and far between.
“It's a lot of new faces, but we lost a lot, so when you lose a lot, you have to bring in a lot,” Jewett said. “The thing that I like about it right now is we're pushing maximum capacity plus and competition from within is evident. We've got some depth and some guys that are competing hard.”
Two of Jewett’s three assistant coaches from 2017 from the spring are gone, too. Hitting coach and recruiting coordinator Billy Jones had undisclosed health issues that forced him to step down unexpectedly this summer.
“I miss Billy every day, but he’s doing fine,” Jewett said. “He’s going to be fine, but it was just something that presented itself that there was nothing anybody could do about it.”
Jewett said Eddie Smith would replace Jones. Although Smith had not started yet at the end of last week while Tulane completed the hiring process, he was the coach at Lower Columbia College in Longview, Washington, the school Jewett and Jones attended.
Smith, who went 146-49 in four years there, played for LSU coach Paul Mainieri at Notre Dame and was an assistant at Virginia, Santa Clara and Notre Dame.
“He’s coached in Omaha a few times,” Jewett said. “He understands (what it takes). It’s good.”
Brian Harris, a former Vanderbilt player when Jewett was an assistant there, replaced Gabe Boruff as the volunteer coach and has been working with the hitters in the first two weeks of practice.
But the biggest difference between fall ball in 2016 and 2017 is the depth at catcher. The Wave could not conduct a real scrimmage last fall because every catcher was injured and unable to throw. That lack of live action may have contributed to a dismal 3-12 start in the spring.
Despite the transfer of 2017 starter Paul Gozzo to Connecticut, Tulane has four healthy catches available this time — junior college transfers Ty Johnson and Acy Owen and freshmen Frankie Niemann and Jake Revere.
“Any time you can actually play the game itself, it benefits you,” Jewett said. “It gives you a truer indication of what guys can do. We have four guys we can put back there (behind the plate) and not go backwards.”
Tulane’s pitchers took several steps back last season, finishing with an ERA of 5.72 a year after compiling an ERA of 3.24. Of the 11 new pitchers on the roster, six are junior college or graduate transfers, lending some heft to a staff that desperately needs it.
“We have a bunch of experienced older guys,” said Kaleb Roper, a Rummel High product who pitched at Arizona for a year before going to San Jacinto College in Houston, where he went 9-4 with a 2.41 ERA and 116 strikeouts in 86 innings. “Everybody is kind of taking initiative for themselves and just getting the work done.”
Jewett is trying to give fall the feel of the regular season, holding scrimmages on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, taking off Monday, training on Tuesday and playing again on Wednesday.
After the frustration for everyone involved in his first year, change is good. Even the huge turnover on the roster could have its advantages.
“It's not any better than last year,” Jewett said. “It's just different. I do like the vibe and I like the way the kids are getting after it.”