Tulane pitcher Justin Campbell was an afterthought as a freshman, limited to 1⅓ innings because he did not throw hard enough to warrant more consideration.
A year later, he could be the savior for a struggling bullpen.
Only 12 college baseball pitchers had appeared in more games than Campbell’s 21 entering Wednesday night’s action. He has morphed from a situational left-handed specialist into a reliable multi-inning reliever for the Green Wave (25-12, 7-2) as it heads to Memphis (17-17, 4-5) for an important American Athletic Conference series.
The opener, originally scheduled for Thursday night, has been moved to 4:30 p.m. Friday because of thunderstorms, with a doubleheader on Saturday set to start at noon.
Tulane is one game behind conference-leading East Carolina and needs to keep pace with the 13th-ranked Pirates (D1Baseball.com) before facing them in Greenville, North Carolina next weekend. Campbell earned his first two career saves in the Wave’s sweep of South Florida last weekend, allowing one hit and one run in 5⅔ innings while striking out eight.
“Last year I probably got caught up in the lack of arm strength and probably didn’t give him a fair shake,” coach Travis Jewett said. “What he did this fall was highly successful, so he earned some of the stuff that he’s getting in the spring. Obviously you can see how we feel about him.”
Campbell even held his own during Tulane’s implosion at UNO on Tuesday night, entering with a runner on third base and needing one pitch to retire the only batter he faced for the final out of the seventh inning.
Opponents are struggling to time his pitches, starting with a slow, big-breaking curve ball that he can throw over the top or from a side-arm delivery. The last five South Florida hitters struck out against him on Sunday, looking foolish.
“You can see people just aren’t taking regular, comfortable swings against him,” Jewett said. “It’s tough to square up, right-handed or left-handed.”
After struggling in back-to-back outings against UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside last month, Campbell has given up zero runs in nine of his last 12 appearances, yielding nine hits while walking four and striking out 20 in 15 1/3 innings.
The Michigan native is loving every minute of his expanded role.
“What’s not to like?” he said. “I came down here to play in big games for a great school in an area where college baseball means a lot. It’s been awesome.”
Tulane never has had a Golden Spikes Award winner, an honor given to the best college baseball player.
Junior third baseman Kody Hoese is making a serious run at becoming the first.
He remained the nation’s leader in home runs with 19 before Wednesday’s games, two more than anyone else. His 133 total bases were 11 more than the next-highest player. His slugging percentage of 0.864 is second to Arizona State’s Hunter Bishop (0.891). His batting average of .409 is the 15th best nationally. His on-base percentage of .500 is tied for 25th best.
He has earned back-to-back AAC player of the week honors during his current nine-game hitting streak, launching seven home runs while going 20 for 39 with 20 runs and15 RBIs.
“It’s kind of crazy,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. I’m kind of speechless about it, but it’s helping the team win. That’s the most important thing about it.”
Looking for help
Tulane’s debacle against UNO on Tuesday continued a midweek theme.
Since five pitchers combined to walk no one in a 7-3 win against UL-Lafayette on March 20, the Wave has gone 1-3 in midweek games, giving up 44 runs in while walking 34.
In the 15-10 loss to UNO, Jewett’s audition for reliable guys out of the bullpen to help out Campbell and Brendan Cellucci on weekends turned up no one with the possible exception of sophomore Josh Bates, who had pitched sparingly in the last month.
To avoid getting into the bullpen, the pressure will be on starting pitchers Kaleb Roper, Keagan Gillies and Chase Solesky against Memphis. All three threw at least five innings against South Florida.
“We’re going to need Roper and Gillies and Solesky to drive this thing deep,” Jewett said. “We have to find some (other) guys, but we’re not going to break. We’re not divided.”