Tulane stumbles in return to NCAA tournament, falls 10-1 to UNC-Wilmington _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Tulane right fielder Lex Kaplan (6) bats against UNC-Wilmington during the NCAA Division I Baton Rouge Baseball Regional, Friday, May 29, 2015, at LSU's Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field.

Unsure whether he would be able to play in the spring, junior outfielder Lex Kaplan sat in the Turchin Stadium press box during Tulane’s Fall Ball World Series and realized exactly how much he wanted to be part of this particular team.

While rehabilitating an injured throwing shoulder that required Tommy John surgery in June, he watched third baseman Hunter Hope lace shots down the left field line and launch a home run. He saw catcher Jake Rogers nail three runners trying to steal second base. He witnessed the improvement of a deep pitching staff plus a veteran lineup that returned almost everyone from the Green Wave’s first regional appearance in six years.

His initial reaction was “wow.”

“We can be really good,” he said as Tulane’s Friday night opener against defending Big Ten champion Illinois approached. “In the fall I got to be a spectator and I was really impressed. I’m happy to be back, and this can be a really good year for us.”

Kaplan, from St. Louis, is coming off a breakout season when he proved he was much more than a legacy recruit. Older brother Jonny Kaplan helped Tulane reach the College World Series for the first time in 2001 and ranks among the school’s top 10 in career stolen bases, runs and hits.

Lex Kaplan hit .178 in a dismal freshman year, but he bounced back in a big way last spring, starting all 60 games in right field, hitting a team-high seven home runs and getting six assists with his strong arm.

Then, while playing in the California Collegiate League All-Star Game in June, he tore the ulna collateral ligament in his left elbow as he tried to throw out a runner at home plate.

After being told it took some guys a year to recover from Tommy John surgery and he might have to redshirt, Kaplan was cleared to play when he returned from winter break in January. He had no intention of missing out on the fun.

“The rehab was painful, but my arm feels great now,” he said. “In the beginning I had to go through rehab twice a day, and then it became once a day, and I’m here now. I’m close (to 100 percent). I’m ready for anything.”

Kaplan’s return gives Tulane a big bat and arm on the field, but his value is just as large in the dugout because he keeps everyone loose. Even though the Wave has serious goals with its top four starting pitchers and seven position players returning, he makes sure everyone enjoys the process.

That journey starts against Illinois, which had the best record in the nation last year (49-10-1) before losing in a super regional to Vanderbilt but, unlike Tulane, lost most of its key performers.

“Lex is the loosest guy on the team,” said All-America candidate shortstop Stephen Alemais, part of the same 2014 recruiting class that dominates the lineup. “Just having him back makes it a lot easier for us to have fun. He’s the type of guy who’s going to smile, joke around and yell. That’s contagious to other players.”

Second-year coach David Pierce has double-trained Kaplan at first base this preseason in case his arm is not up to snuff, adding he will judge the impact of his return at the end of the year, not the beginning.

Kaplan was much less reticent in his praise of Pierce and his staff, whom he credits for Tulane’s turnaround from 23-29 in 2014 to 35-25 last season.

“This is the best coaching staff I’ve ever played for,” he said. “I honestly think it’s the best in the country. For us, as my freshman year to do what we did and then to have those guys come in with the same players and do what we did last year, I’m just really excited to see what we have for this year.”