The rain had gone and the skies had cleared a bit, and yet things still looked bleak for the Tulane baseball team Saturday night at Turchin Stadium.
The Green Wave trailed Houston by four runs in the bottom of the fifth, and Cougars starting pitcher Seth Romero — whom Tulane coach David Pierce called “the best left-hander in the country” — looked all but unhittable.
But while the weather had taken its time to shift — rain and lightning necessitated a three-hour delay for first pitch set for 4 p.m. — the game turned in a hurry. When it was over, the Green Wave was a 10-4 winner.
“It didn’t look great for us down by four in the middle of the game, but I’m just so proud of the way our kids fought,” said Pierce, Tulane’s second-year coach. “Maybe the grittiest win since I’ve been here.”
After four scoreless, speedy innings, Houston (24-17, 6-8 American) pounced and looked poised to clinch the series.
Jacob Campbell led off the bottom of the fifth with a single, and two batters later Connor Hollis singled to put runners on first and second with one out.
Connor Wong followed with a three-run home run to straightaway center field to give Houston a 3-0 lead. It was just the second home run Tulane starter Ross Massey had allowed all season.
It gave the Cougars a lead that looked all but insurmountable, given Romero’s dominant stuff early. And Houston wasn’t finished, adding another run on left fielder Corey Julks’ two-out RBI single to take a 4-0 lead into the bottom of the fifth.
Suddenly, though, the offense came to life for Tulane (28-14, 8-5).
Lex Kaplan and Hunter Williams led off the bottom of the fifth with singles, and Kaplan advanced to third on a wild pitch. Jake Willsey followed with a sacrifice fly to deep left-center that scored Kaplan and moved Williams to second, and Grant Brown walked to put runners on first and second.
Stephen Alemais doubled home Williams and moved Brown to third, and then the inning really got weird.
Jake Rogers hit a high fly ball down the right field line that Houston right fielder Casey Clay caught, then dropped. Brown scored, and umpires huddled near the mound before ruling that Rogers was safe at second on a two-base error.
Witherspoon — who finished with four hits — singled in Rogers, and Alemais came home on a throwing error by first baseman Joe Davis that allowed Witherspoon to advance to third.
That put Tulane in front 5-4, and Romero (4-4) was injured in the sequence, leaving the game after he attempted a string of warmup pitches. The Green Wave stranded Witherspoon at third when Houston reliever Bubba Maxwell struck out Hunter Hope and Jeremy Montalbano.
That Tulane led at all was a shocking turn, given that Romero had allowed two hits and struck out eight though the first four innings.
Kaplan led off the bottom of the bottom of the sixth with a base hit, advanced to third on Williams’ single, then scored on Willsey’s line-drive sacrifice fly to left that put Tulane ahead 6-4.
That was the score through six innings, and it had been the same Friday, when Houston rallied for a 10-6 win.
On Saturday, Tulane didn’t stop scoring.
Rogers and Witherspoon started the bottom of the seventh with back-to-back singles. After Hope and Montalbano struck out, Kaplan hit a sharp single to right center that scored Rogers and put Tulane in front 7-4. Witherspoon scored on a wild pitch that gave the Wave an 8-4 lead.
Witherspoon drove in Rogers in the bottom of the eighth with his fourth hit of the night to put Tulane ahead 10-4, and Hope followed with an RBI single to stretch the lead to 10-4.
“Anytime you can get your pitchers more cushioning you’re going to go for it,” Witherspoon said. “That’s what you have to do against a team that, I’m sure they like coming back just as much as we do.”
It was J.P. France who stifled Houston’s comeback bid. He relieved starter Ross Massey (7-2) after six complete and held the Cougars’ bats in check. France gave up two hits and no runs in two innings, striking out two.
“Our bats were hot tonight,” France said. “Every inning we always had either a runner in scoring position or we were hitting the ball hard. I knew if I kept throwing up zeroes, we were going to keep tacking on runs.”
Tulane did. As a result, the Green Wave will enter Sunday’s 11 a.m. rubber match – first pitch was moved up from 1 p.m. to maximize the teams’ chances of getting in the game – with a chance to take the series.
“We could not lose this game,” Witherspoon said. “We did a good job of fighting, and even though we got hit first, we did a good job of hitting last, I guess.”