Kaleb Roper was too keyed up to throw early strikes, then hesitated when he fielded a sacrifice bunt before firing to third a fraction late, leading to a run.
The moment appeared too big for the Tulane baseball team in the very early stages Friday night against 10th-ranked Ole Miss at Turchin Stadium. Trying to prove its worth after back-to-back losing seasons, the Green Wave made some questionable plays.
Those jitters disappeared quickly, but so did a couple of balls on mammoth home runs from Ole Miss’ prodigious hitters as the Rebels took the series opener 6-4 on Friday night in a charged-up atmosphere.
After the Wave rallied to go ahead 4-2 in the fifth inning, preseason All-SEC first baseman Cole Zabowski blasted a two-out pitch from Roper over the wall in center field to tie the score at 4. An inning later, again with two outs, Grae Kessinger drove Roper’s final pitch off the scoreboard in left field as the Rebels re-took the lead, 5-4.
Roper’s late mistakes — he also plunked Ryan Olenek on his first pitch before Zabowksi came to the plate — were killers in an otherwise sterling outing. He gave up five hits in 6⅔ innings, walked one and struck out eight against a team that hit .300 a year ago and returned seven starters.
Tulane (5-1) lost despite doubling up Ole Miss (3-1) in hits 12-6.
“When we made a couple of mistakes, they capitalized,” coach Travis Jewett said. “That’s what good teams do. We had some opportunities for shutdowns and it wasn’t meant to go our way. We fought like heck.”
As had been the case the past two years, Tulane suffered through a shaky outing from the bullpen. Justin Campbell, who relieved Roper (0-1), faced three batters and retired none of them, hitting the first two before giving up a run-scoring single.
Electric freshman Krishna Raj, the star of last Saturday’s 13-inning win against George Washington, blanked the Rebels the rest of the way and made two nifty defensive plays, fielding a one-bouncer with his bare hand and snagging a line drive, all the while pumping himself up and playing to the crowd.
The Wave did not capitalize.
Ty Johnson, in his first game back after missing four with a mangled thumb, got picked off from first by the catcher with two on and one out in the eighth.
With two runners on in the ninth, Jonathon Artigues and pinch hitter Luke Glancy missed an opportunity to channel Jake Rogers and hit a walk-off home run, like Rogers did to eliminate the top-seeded Rebels from the Oxford regional in 2016.
Ole Miss closer Parker Caracci struck out Artigues and induced a grounder to first from Glancy, a left-hander who batted for freshman Hudson Haskins to match up better with Caracci.
“It could have gone either way,” said first baseman Trevor Jensen, who walked to start the ninth but was stranded at second. “We definitely played well enough to win.”
The Wave had no problem getting around on Ole Miss starter Zack Phillips’ pitches. Sal Gozzo and Trevor Jensen doubled right over the third-base bag in the third, leading to a pair of runs that tied the score at 2.
Jensen’s one-out single in the fifth started the next rally. The Wave took a 3-2 lead on Artigues’ sacrifice fly, and Haskins followed with a line-drive single up the middle for his team-leading 11th RBI in 17 at-bats.
Roper cruised along until he plunked Olenek in the back on his first pitch with two outs in the sixth. Zabowski followed with his no-doubt homer.
One more mistake, to Kessinger, was the difference.
“Credit to them,” Roper said. “I was trying to give my team the best chance to win. We were right there, but they had some things go their way. We’ll be right back out there tomorrow getting after it.”
One early play that appeared to be a mistake turned out to be by design. Ole Miss went ahead 2-0 when Chase Cockrell scored from third base without a throw as Tulane caught catcher Cooper Johnson in a rundown the Rebels created intentionally. The Wave traded a run for the out.
“Against a team like that, you just want to get off the field,” Jewett said. “That was a damage-control opportunity to keep that inning at a minimum.”
No one minimized the atmosphere. The momentum swung three times, with the Rebels starting and closing well to the delight of a strong contingent of their fans who traveled to New Orleans.
“This is why we play, for games and nights like this,” Jewett said. “They brought some people with them and we had a nice crowd (official attendance: 2,424). It’s easy to get a little hyped up, but if we are going to win and be the team I think we’re going to be, we are going to have to control these moments.”
The two teams will meet again at 1 p.m. Saturday in a game moved up an hour to avoid rain expected in the early evening.
Tulane plans to be ready.
“It was so hard-fought, but we’ve got to flush it,” Jensen said. “That’s just really what it is. We know we can hang with these guys. They are a good team, but so are we.”