For a rare occasion, it was not Kody Hoese’s night on Thursday. He missed a pair of home runs by inches, struck out a season-high three times and committed a killer error.
Not so rare was Tulane coughing up an early lead immediately after having a big inning.
Coach Travis Jewett repeatedly has lamented the way his team fails to back up big outbursts by shutting down opponents in their next at-bats, and it happened again.
The Green Wave blew a 4-1 lead in the opener of its regular-season-ending series against Connecticut, losing 8-5 at Turchin Stadium courtesy of a tie-breaking grand slam from Huskies cleanup hitter Pat Winkle in the seventh inning.
Tulane (30-23, 11-10), which was 8-3 in the AAC after sweeping South Florida at home, fell to third place for the first time since early April and will have to win the next two games to climb past Cincinnati for second. The Wave is only a half-game ahead of UConn (32-21, 11-11) and Houston, which lost 8-0 at Central Florida earlier Thursday, and could slide as far as fifth.
“It seems to be game after game after game where we can just kind of cement second place in this league, and we just don’t seem to want to reach out there and grab it,” Jewett said. “We give, give, give instead of take, take, take.”
The turning point was easy to spot.
After Tulane scored four runs off UConn ace Mason Feole (3-3) to go ahead 4-1 in the fourth—the last two coming off a blooper by Kobi Owen that UConn left fielder John Toppa lost in the twilight—Hoese booted a hard grounder just a couple of steps from third base and an inning-ending force-out.
It was only his fifth error of the season. Before that miscue, the Wave had not committed an error in five games, entering the series with the league’s best fielding percentage at .978.
“I don’t know if he pulled his eyes up on it thinking he was going to step on the base or what,” Jewett said. “It was a routine error right there that doesn’t happen very often.”
With the bases loaded, the Huskies then scored three unearned runs on Winkel’s single.
Center fielder Kobi Owen appeared to believe Michael Woodworth would stop at third when he fielded the ball, throwing it softly into no-man’s land. Woodworth, noticed, sprinting home to score easily.
“I don’t know where that ball was going," Jewett said. "It looked like Little League.”
The unfortunate stretch spoiled an otherwise terrific three innings from reliever Keagan Gillies, who struck out the side in the fourth and the sixth after replacing starter Kaleb Roper. Roper, on a 50-pitch count to keep him fresh for next Tuesday’s AAC tourney opener, struggled through three innings but allowed only one run.
Gillies (2-4) was as not sharp in the seventh, walking nine-hole hitter Conor Moriarty (.165 batting average) on four pitches before Toppa recovered from an 0-2 count to lash a single to left field.
Even a good break did not save the Wave. Anthony Prato appeared to beat Hoese’s throw on a sacrifice attempt, but first-base umpire Jason Milsap ruled him out, negating what would have been a bases-loaded, no-out situation.
It did not matter.
Cellucci entered after a walk, and Winkel hammered his fourth pitch off the top of the screen behind the wall in right field, giving him a whopping seven RBIs.
“I think he’s hitting .138 against left-handers,” Jewett said. “We thought we had a good matchup. He (Cellucci) just goosed a ball over the middle of the plate.”
It was not hard to see how the outcome could have been different. UConn center fielder Michael Woodworth leapt to catch a Hoese fly ball that was ticketed for the top of the wall in the first inning. Seven innings later, Hoese crushed a slider from UConn closer Jacob Wallace maybe a foot foul down the left field line and high over the wall.
If it had stayed fair, the blast would have cut Tulane’s deficit to 8-7, giving the Wave a shot against the league's best closer. Wallace, recording his 14th save, has an ERA of 0.77.
Hoese struck out a few pitches later, finishing 0 for 4 as his average dipped below .400 for the first time since late March.
“We can’t expect him to be Superman every night,” Jewett said. “We have to have others, too.”
The Wave’s last chance ended when Luke Glancy flew out in the ninth, representing the tying run.
“Not good baseball,” Jewett said. “We were lucky to be as close as we were. We didn’t deserve to win the game.”