tulanebaseball.020919_04.jpg

Tulane assistant baseball coach Daniel Latham poses for a photo during the university's preseason media availability Friday, February 8, 2019, at Tulane's Yulman Stadium in New Orleans.

Although he loved his seven years at Southeastern Louisiana, the easy part for new Tulane pitching coach Daniel Latham was taking the job when Travis Jewett offered it to him in May.

“It’s only natural to want to go back to your alma mater and to a place you’re really proud of,” said Latham, who registered a school-record 43 saves from 2004 to 2007 and was the closer on the Green Wave’s last College World Series team in 2005. “We’re so history-rich in baseball. Knowing what’s here and what the school’s about and the baseball program’s about, it was a little bit of a no-brainer for me.”

The hard part will be producing immediate results with a staff that could not find the plate the past two years under former pitching coach Tighe Dickinson. Whether it was mostly in their heads, mechanical issues or a combination of both, the Wave ranked 278th out of 295 Division I teams in bases on balls per nine innings in 2017 and 261st in 2018.

Walks, wild pitches and hit batsmen were a way of life as Tulane finished below .500 in back-to-back years for the first time since the 1960s.

Latham is confident he can make a difference, giving the Wave a real shot to reach a regional in coach Travis Jewett’s third season despite modest outside expectations. American Athletic Association coaches tabbed Tulane sixth out of nine teams in their preseason poll.

“When you struggle that mightily (with control), it’s not usually one thing,” Latham said. “It’s a lot of things. Now do I think we’re going to turn around this year and be top 50 in the country (in fewest walks per game)? No, that’s not realistic. But we will be in the top half. With the offense we have this year and the position players and the defense we have, that’s going to be enough.”

Tulane, which opens against George Washington next Friday at Turchin Stadium, has to replace star center fielder Grant Witherspoon but returns every other significant hitter and position player from last year. The Wave also brings back its entire weekend starting rotation and its best reliever, sophomore Connor Pellerin.

The trick is getting those guys to pitch to their talent level and develop more depth on the mound after Tulane compiled an ERA of 5.42 last year, only a slight improvement from 2017 (5.72) and still the worst in the AAC by nearly a full run.

“What we think is going to be our weekend rotation (Kaleb Roper, Keagan Gillies, Chase Solesky) and our top two bullpen arms are as good as anybody in our league or better,” Latham said. “I’m working hard to develop some depth behind those guys. The key to our season is staying healthy with our top-end guys and having four or five more guys emerge as key contributors.”

Roper (5-5, 4.48 ERA), who started on Fridays last year, noticed an immediate difference when Latham arrived, ranging from communication to arm care to throwing schedules.

“He talks a lot, which is good,” Roper said. “We need as much feedback as we can get on the mound. It has helped each and every one of us.”

Latham’s staffs at Southeastern had ERAs below 4.00 in five of his seven years there, leading the Southland Conference with an ERA of 3.01 in 2016 and dipping as low as 2.92 in 2014. The Lions walked 145 in 529 innings last season compared to Tulane’s 296 in 506 innings.

“When he got here he mostly worked with trusting ourselves and confidence with all of our pitches,” said Pellerin, who undermined his own excellent stuff by walking 40 in 44 innings. “A lot of the confidence is built through our bullpen (sessions) and all the work that we're putting in with that, but it's mostly just trusting ourselves on the mound.”

With Solesky healthy again after back issues rendered him ineffective (22 innings, 9.82 ERA) and then shut him down a year ago, Tulane has four weekend-quality starters in him, Roper, Gillies (6-6, 3.36) and Trent Johnson (4-3, 4.86). Plus, Josh Bates (2-2, 5.24) gained experience while starting 10 games as a freshman.

The arms are there, but the season really will have legs if they command their pitches.

“We’ve got a handful of guys throwing the ball in the low-to-mid 90s,” Jewett said. “Velocity’s not everything, but strikes are. We’ve learned that over the past. We’re only going to be as good as the guys standing on that round circle in the middle of the field.”


Follow Guerry Smith on Twitter, @guersmith