It’s not by choice, but the Tulane baseball team will get another chance to show its depth this weekend in a huge home series against East Carolina.
Friday ace Corey Merrill will miss his third consecutive start with lingering tenderness. Designated hitter/reliever Jeremy Montalbano is out temporarily with an arm injury he suffered as he pitched against Southeastern Louisiana in the ninth inning Tuesday.
Their replacements are not causing coach David Pierce much concern.
Freshman Ross Massey, the new Friday starter, is 3-2 with a 1.95 ERA and has been even more impressive at home, allowing one earned run in 17 innings.
Montalbano’s absence has cleared a spot for junior Hunter Williams in the lineup. Williams, who led the team with 40 RBIs last season, returned Tuesday for the first time since fracturing a hand swinging at a pitch against Arizona in the fifth game of the year.
Williams will start at first base, with Grant Witherspoon shifting to the outfield. Pierce has not even ruled out using Montalbano, who left the field holding his arm, as a hitter at some point this weekend.
“We just got him back from the doctor,” Pierce said before Thursday’s practice. “There’s no doubt he will be back offensively. The bottom line is, he’s free to swing as soon as he feels like he can.”
Montalbano singled, doubled and tripled against Southeastern after hitting a home run against Connecticut in his previous game, but Williams is capable at the plate, too, despite an 0-for-13 start this year. He drew a walk in the ninth inning against Southeastern, and several of his outs at the beginning of the season were screaming line drives.
“We lose one and gain one,” Pierce said. “Hunter plays the game hard and the right way and he’s a leader. Getting his offense and defense on the field comes at a perfect time for us right now. He had 13 at-bats and could have been leading the team in hitting because he hit a lot of balls hard. He just did not have any results.”
Williams will bat lower in the lineup than Montalbano’s cleanup spot as he gets used to live pitching, but he will move up if he regains his 2015 form, when he was second on the team to shortstop Stephen Alemais with a .285 average.
“I feel great,” Williams said. “I’ve been sitting over here for a while cheering, but it’s a lot better to be out there. I’m just going to find a way to help the team win and find ways to get on base. That’s what you need.” Tulane (19-9, 1-1 American Athletic Conference) and East Carolina (20-9, 2-1) are two of the favorites to win the league along with Houston. The Pirates climbed to No. 16 in the D1Baseball.com top 25 after winning two of three from the Cougars in their conference opener.
“They play aggressively, but they don’t strike out,” Pierce said. “Their offensive approach is to fight pitchers, get the ball in play and make things happen. Their pitching is very solid.”
The starting pitchers for both teams have posted impressive numbers.
ECU lefty Evan Kruczynski (4-0, 1.88), who will oppose Ross Massey, pitched out of trouble constantly against Houston, yielding one run despite allowing nine hits in seven innings. The Wave saw him twice a year ago, knocking him out in the fifth inning in Greenville, North Carolina, but getting only one unearned run in 6.1 innings of a 3-1 loss at the AAC tournament.
Tulane’s Emerson Gibbs (2-1, 2.68) will face East Carolina’s Jimmy Boyd (4-1, 1.96) on Saturday, with the Wave’s Alex Massey (3-2, 4.79) going against the Pirates’ Jacob Wolfe (3-3, .247) on Sunday.
Gibbs and Alex Massey have been terrific at home, with Gibbs sporting a 1.63 ERA and Massey 2.25.
“We’re really confident here,” Gibbs said. “The turf field might help and we’ve got great defense and timely hitting, but it’s just a comfort things. We play a lot of games here, so we’re comfortable.”
Coming off an emotional 7-6 defeat at Turchin Stadium to Southeastern, Tulane cannot wait to get back on the field. The Wave, 13-2 at home, has dropped consecutive games only once this season, following one-run midweek losses to UNO, Nicholls State with victories.
“We’ve had some midweek losses that could have gone either way,” Alemais said. “I feel like we could be 24-5, and that’s a big difference from 19-9. Coach talks about playing the game in its entirety, and when we do the little things, we’ll win a lot.”
Pierce said Lex Kaplan, who has sat against lefties recently, would start Friday in part because Kruczynski does not have dominant numbers against left-handed hitters. ... Tulane has allowed only six home runs this year. East Carolina has given up eight.