With an RPI in the high 20s, the Tulane baseball team remains a little low on one key metric for hosting an NCAA tournament regional, even after winning the American Athletic Conference regular-season title.
The Green Wave (37-17) has all week to work on that number, though, as it tries to add an AAC tournament championship to its résumé? at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Florida. Top-seeded Tulane opens at 6 p.m. Tuesday against No. 8 seed Central Florida (25-31) in a game that will air on CBS Sports Network.
Completing the regular season-tournament double, which the Wave has accomplished only three times (1998, 2001, 2005), would give it a compelling case to begin the postseason in New Orleans.
“If we truly understand the breakdown of the regionals, then we want to give it our all to have a chance to host and play at home,” coach David Pierce said. “I think the kids understand that. They’ll be just as excited about trying to take the tournament as they were (in beating Houston to clinch the regular-season championship) this past weekend.”
Tulane, which flew directly to Florida from Houston on Sunday, has been a regional host twice and won both times on the way to the College World Series. The Wave has traveled for 18 regionals and won one of them.
It’s not to hard figure out the best route to Omaha, Nebraska.
“It gives us definitely something else to play for in addition to a tournament championship — not that we need any extra motivation,” junior second baseman Jake Willsey said. “(Being) a host would be huge for us as a team and mean a lot to our fans. It would be great for our program because, frankly, we deserve it.”
Tulane is 8-2 against top-25 RPI teams, one of the best winning percentages in the nation, and a solid 18-10 against the top 100. The Wave lost only one weekend series out of 13, putting it in elite company. Kent State of the Mid-American Conference is the only team in the country that won every weekend series.
The latest rankings, which play no role in the selection committee’s decisions, also like the Wave. Tulane is as high as No. 11 in Baseball America and no lower than No. 17 in Collegiate Baseball.
There are no administrative issues, either. Athletic director Troy Dannen termed Tulane’s bid approach as “extraordinarily aggressive.”
The sticking point is that RPI, which was hurt when marquee nonconference opponent Texas (22-30) tanked and the AAC dropped three spots to No. 6 from last year in conference strength. The Southeastern Conference has seven of the top 11 teams in the RPI, and all of them likely will be hosts when the sites are announced Sunday. The ACC, rated even higher than the SEC in the RPI, figures to gobble up another five hosting roles.
Big 12 champion Texas Tech, No. 13 in the RPI, is considered a virtual lock, too. That leaves three spots for everyone else, with west coast teams — though down this year — traditionally receiving at least two host sites, for geographical reasons.
Tulane could be competing with Sun Belt co-champion Louisiana-Lafayette, TCU of the Big 12 and Big South champ Coastal Carolina for the final spot. All three have RPIs in the top 18, so the only solution for the Wave is to keep winning.
“Every opportunity we have to go play for a championship, we’re going to go after it,” Pierce said. “It’s real important. It’s a momentum thing. It’s just about playing the game right. We’re not guaranteed anything but, if we go out and pitch and play defense, we’ll have a chance.”
The trickiest part could be the start against UCF. After using all four of his weekly starters plus former ace Corey Merrill on Friday and Saturday to lock down the regular-season title, Pierce will go with normal reliever Trevor Simms (4-1, 3.68 ERA) and a cast of bullpen guys behind him.
Simms’ only start in the past three years was for West Virginia in 2014. He has pitched 14.2 innings this season, walking eight and hitting six batters.
UCF, which was swept at home by Tulane in April, counters with AAC ERA leader Robby Howell (7-3, 1.91). The Knights lost their last six conference games but did not quit, rallying for six runs in the ninth inning of an 8-7 loss to East Carolina on Saturday.
If the Wave gets by the Knights, the bracket will turn in its favor. First-team All-AAC pitcher Emerson Gibbs would start Thursday against the winner of No. 4 Cincinnati and No. 5 Houston, with every key pitcher available through Sunday’s championship game.
“We’re not done yet,” junior right fielder Lex Kaplan said. “We’re going to keep working hard, and we’re going to go all the way.”
Outfielder Jarret DeHart, who has started 25 games, is nursing a shoulder injury and is questionable for the tournament. … Pierce ruled out starting Corey Merrill against UCF because he threw nearly 80 pitches in relief Friday at Houston. … The winner of Tulane’s bracket faces the winner of the four-team bracket of No. 2 East Carolina, No. 3 Connecticut, No. 6 Memphis and No. 7 South Florida for the championship. ... Only Tuesday’s games and the title matchup (11 a.m. Sunday on ESPNews) will be televised, but the rest can be streamed online.