It did not take long for Jake Willsey’s hard work in the offseason to pay off.
After hitting zero home runs in his first two years, Willsey blasted four in the first two weeks for a Tulane baseball team that has needed all of the offense it can get with a suddenly shaky pitching staff. When Pepperdine (3-5) arrives Friday for a crucial weekend series, the Green Wave (4-4) could use more of his newfound stroke.
“I worked a lot on my swing, and I worked a lot in the gym to add 10 pounds,” he said. “That combined with the swing adjustments I’ve made have really translated into a lot more power.”
Willsey’s first home run sailed well over the 400-foot sign in center field at Turchin Stadium, helping the Wave beat Illinois 3-0 on Feb. 20. He launched a pair of homers — including the game-winner in the bottom of the eighth — as Tulane outlasted Arizona 11-10 last Friday in the Tony Gwynn Classic. He followed with a fourth against Nebraska last Sunday in an 11-5 defeat.
Having gone homer-less in 265 career at-bats, he knew he needed to change to stay in the lineup. Despite going 0 for 2 with two strikeouts in Tulane’s 13-4 loss at Southeastern Louisiana on Wednesday, he is hitting .375 with eight RBIs, six runs scored and two stolen bases while starting seven of the Wave’s eight games.
“I’ve created a lot more rhythm with my hands, took my bat out a little bit and have a toe-tap now,” he said. “It’s just a lot of things that should help me create both rhythm and power.”
Willsey, from Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, started 35 times at second base in 2014, batting .258 with three doubles. He posted similar numbers last season, hitting .263 with four doubles and a triple.
Add the double he had against Arizona in a monster day, and he already has matched that total for extra bases through eight games.
“That’s a credit to Jake Willsey,” coach David Pierce said. “He did such a great job of studying his swing and applying it and putting the work in on his body. He’s very competitive and very determined. I’m just really proud of him.”
Tulane’s bullpen is a different story. Five relievers combined to give up 10 runs in the last four innings against Southeastern, running the season total to 29 runs in 31.2 innings.
Senior Patrick Duester, a reliable midweek starter a year ago, is saddled with a 15.43 ERA. He has surrendered seven hits and walked 10 in four appearances covering 4.2 innings.
Another senior, Tim Yandel, has an even fatter 19.64 ERA, walking eight and allowing six hits in 3.2 innings.
“It’s really uncharacteristic for those two,” Pierce said. We’ve got to get them going. They are proven guys for us. The rest of them are really kind of unknown. We’re still trying to piece it together.”
Pepperdine, like Tulane, has struggled early in the year, batting .218. The Waves, who came up a game short of the College World Series in 2014 and won two games in a regional last season, have dropped four of five since winning their first series against Oakland.
The victory, though, came in the opener of a three-game set with Texas A&M, which is ranked third by D1Baseball.com.
“They can really pitch,” Pierce said. “They have a lot of returning arms. They haven’t hit for average, but they do have some power in their lineup. They are a very solid team. They are going to come in here trying to right their ship as well.”
They also will have to contend with Willsey and his love of the long ball for the first time. He did not have an at-bat when Tulane played at Pepperdine to start the 2015 season.
“When I hit the first home run I knew there was going to be a lot more,” he said. “That one went pretty deep. I just knew that this was going to be a different type season for me.”
Tulane will have the same starting rotation as in the first two weekends--Corey Merrill on Friday, Alex Massey on Saturday and Emerson Gibbs on Sunday. … The Wave won two of three from the Waves last year.