CLEARWATER, Fla. — For the second consecutive weekend, Houston had the Tulane baseball team and its title aspirations on the ropes, poised to put the Green Wave away.
This time, the knockout blows — both of them to left field — landed.
The No. 5 seed Cougars hit two home runs off Tulane starter J.P. France, including designated hitter Joe Davis’ three-run blast in the fifth inning, en route to a 6-2 win Saturday that eliminated the top-seeded Green Wave (39-19) from the American Athletic Conference tournament.
“They made all the plays,” said Green Wave coach David Pierce, whose club was seeking its first 40-win season in 10 years. “They pitched better and they had the timely hits, so they deserved to win.”
It was the second loss to the Cougars (36-22) in three days for Tulane, which won the final two games of last weekend’s series at Houston to claim the conference regular-season title. Tulane learns its postseason destination during Monday’s 11 a.m. NCAA tournament selection show.
Whether it’s a favorite or fringe candidate to host a regional depends on whom you ask.
“I thought we accomplished enough (to host) when we won this league, and I truly believe that because of how tough this league is,” Pierce said. “You’re playing a team (Houston) that was a top-10 going into the preseason, and they finished in fifth place in our league, so you know there’s talent there.”
As for Tulane’s talent, it was on display only in spurts Saturday. The Green Wave collected nine hits and put the leadoff runner aboard in five innings but squandered most of their opportunities.
Case in point: the bottom of the third. With the score tied at 1, shortstop Stephen Alemais hit a leadoff double and catcher Jake Rogers walked. After Hunter Williams flied out, Houston right fielder Connor Wong made a shoestring grab of a Jeremy Montalbano fly. Junior Lex Kaplan then singled to shallow right, but Wong threw out Alemais at home plate by several steps to end the inning.
“It’s a situation where you’ve got the 3, 4, 5 (hitters) coming up and Hunter’s swung the bat as well as anybody, so I’m letting him hit,” Pierce said. “We didn’t do anything with all three. Actually Lex did, and we took a chance on scoring (Alemais) right there. They played better than us today.”
By contrast, Houston scored five of its six runs with two outs, exploiting what Pierce called a “very average” outing by France (five innings, four runs, six hits). He surrendered a two-out home run to Zac Taylor in the third on an elevated fastball that tied the score at 1, then watched Davis smack his second homer off the Green Wave in as many contests two innings later to give Houston a 4-1 lead.
“There’s a certain way in their offensive philosophy that you have to pitch them, and we’ve done a pretty good job of that,” Pierce said. “(France) competed well; I just think he made too many mistakes and lost some focus.”
His counterpart, Houston freshman right-hander Mitch Ullom, scattered eight hits over six innings but watched his defense convert two double plays. He exited after issuing a leadoff home run to Hunter Hope in the bottom of the seventh, cutting Tulane’s deficit to 4-2.
Houston tacked on an insurance run each in the eighth and ninth, while Cougars closer Nick Hernandez struck out four for a perfect, 2.1-inning save.