Hope comes alive! Hunter Hope erupts as Tulane sweeps Illinois State _lowres

Advocate staff photo by A.J. SISCO -- Tulane pitcher Emerson Gibbs (29) throws against Illinois State at Turchin Stadium in New Orleans, La. Saturday, March. 26, 2016.

Tulane baseball coach David Pierce has a simple piece of advice for anyone attending the weekend series against Houston at Turchin Stadium: Don’t be tardy.

“You better get to the ballpark on time because the games might be over in about two hours,” he said. “There will be a lot of strikes. I don’t see any walks or any poor pitching.”

The Cougars, who rank second nationally in ERA (2.37), are the latest in a long line of American Athletic Conference opponents with dominant starting pitchers. Coming off an emotional 4-1 Tuesday night victory against LSU in front of a record crowd at Turchin, surging Tulane (27-13, 7-4 AAC) knows one missed opportunity against Houston (23-16, 5-7) could be fatal in what figures to be a very low-scoring series.

Friday’s opener features Green Wave senior Emerson Gibbs (4-2 1.86 ERA) and Cougars curveball specialist Andrew Lantrip (5-5, 1.82) in a matchup of right-handed equals. On Saturday, crafty Tulane freshman Ross Massey (6-2, 1.43) will oppose hard-throwing Seth Romero (4-3, 2.18), the preseason AAC co-pitcher of the year, in a left-handed battle of contrasts.

The numbers are incredible all the way around, from Gibbs’ 0.30 ERA in conference games to Lantrip’s four walks in 74 innings to Massey’s 0.77 home ERA to Romero’s 70 strikeouts in 57.2 innings.

“You know they are going to be in every game because of their pitching,” Pierce said. “That’s what makes them so dangerous. A clutch hit here and there will change the outcome.”

It’s been a similar story across the league since the start of AAC play. A whopping seven starting pitchers boast a sub-2.00 ERA a year after no one finished that low. The cumulative batting average in conference games is a paltry .240.

Defending AAC champion Houston, which has under-performed after being the clear preseason favorite to repeat, desperately needs a big series win. The Wave scored 11 runs in six games against the Cougars last year, never managing more than three runs while losing four out of six.

“They were the best pitching staff we faced over the course of a weekend, and they have the same core group coming back,” shortstop Stephen Alemais said. “It’s going to be tough, but our guys are up for the challenge. We’re pretty confident and we’re pretty hot, so we just have to keep it going.”

Despite having the second-lowest batting average (.233) in AAC games, Tulane has scored the most runs (49), relying on a league-best 13 homers and clutch hitting against a string of lethal arms. The Wave already has faced four sub-2.00 ERA pitchers as well as UConn ace Anthony Kay, the AACs other preseason co-pitcher of the year.

Tulane knocked out UConn’s Tim Cate (1.70) early and scored four runs in 6.2 innings against Central Florida’s Robby Howell (1.54) but could not solve East Carolina’s Evan Kruczynski (1.51) or Cincinnati’s Andrew Zellner (1.80).

The array of pitching stars has led to some lopsided numbers. Alemais is hitting .408 in nonconference games and .227 in AAC action. The discrepancy for catcher Jake Rogers is nearly as large — .301 out of the league and .171 in it.

“Coach reiterates that we have to score in many different ways,” Rogers said. “You just have to be ready for your pitch. We’ve been confident enough and had good approaches lately. When we’ve gotten our pitch, we’ve turned on them and hit them.”

The pressure of pitching in low-scoring games has not fazed Gibbs or Massey. Gibbs has allowed one earned run in 30 innings covering four conference starts. Massey has pitched 26 innings in his last three starts, giving up two earned runs.

“It’s fun to pitch in the American Conference, especially against all the competition we face week in and week out,” Massey said. “Knowing that you’re going against these good arms motivates you and gets you excited ready to pitch. I’m looking forward to this weekend.”

For the second time in three weeks, Tulane enters a series with a real chance to take over first place but also the possibility of sliding the other direction. It is a half-game behind conference-leading Cincinnati, which plays at 17th-ranked East Carolina, but only a game in front of fourth-place UConn, which faces last-place Memphis.

In the midst of final exams, the Wave cannot afford to come out flat.

“We’re not guaranteed anything,” Pierce said. “We could go out and play three great games and still struggle to win them. We have to give ourselves a chance with our pitching, go to work every day and have some guys step up.”