A 12-0 rout of Southern Miss on Tuesday was good for the soul, but the Tulane baseball team knows it won’t roll up that kind of total against the pitching it will face in the American Athletic Conference.
Patience and persistence at the plate will be pivotal for the Green Wave (23-13, 4-4 AAC) this weekend at Central Florida (20-19, 5-4), the latest in a string of AAC opponents with at least one dominant starting pitcher.
Robby Howell, who will go for the Knights on Friday, is 7-0 with a conference-best 1.14 ERA. Their staff ERA is 2.31 in league games, joining Tulane’s first three AAC foes (Connecticut, East Carolina, Cincinnati) at below 3.00 through three weeks of conference play.
“When you’re facing the top guys on the mound, you can’t expect to come out there and put six runs up in one inning,” said first baseman Hunter Williams, whose four RBIs against Southern Miss produced more runs than Tulane scored in five of its previous six games.
“You have to grind out at-bats, see a lot of pitches and find a way to get to the bullpen. If you can score a couple of runs on them while you’re getting to the bullpen, that’s the way to do it.”
Tulane struggled against the first three AAC opening starters it faced. Connecticut’s Anthony Kay tossed a perfect game through five innings as the Huskies built a 7-0 lead on the way to a 9-4 victory.
East Carolina’s Evan Kruczynski struck out a career-high 13, allowing three hits and no runs through eight innings before the Wave rallied for five in the ninth to win.
Andrew Zellner pitched 5.2 innings without giving up a run in Cincinnati’s 2-1 victory at Turchin Stadium last Friday.
Tulane’s batting average in eight conference games is a league-worst .206, and the path won’t get any easier. The Wave has a pair of series remaining against Houston and preseason first-team All-AAC pitchers Seth Romero (4-2, 1.99) and Andrew Lantrip (4-5, 2.05).
Coach David Pierce will settle for the same approach at the plate he saw against Southern Miss, when the Wave had 10 hits and 12 walks.
“You can’t try to do too much,” he said. “It’s about maturity. You’re not going to hit a home run every at-bat. Our patience was so important Tuesday. We stayed with at-bats. That puts more pressure on the pitcher.”
Tulane may be catching a break against UCF. Without explanation, the Knights pulled normal Friday starter Cre Finfrock from the rotation after he yielded six runs in 2.1 innings against South Florida last Friday. He boasted a 2.57 ERA before that rocky outing and allowed three or fewer runs in 12 of his 15 starts a year ago as a freshman.
UCF will use Juan Pimentel (2-5, 4.42) on Saturday and has not decided on a Sunday starter, but pitching depth clearly is an issue. The Knights have lost 10 consecutive midweek games.
The Wave will counter with the dominant 1-2 punch of Emerson Gibbs (3-2, 2.08) on Friday and freshman Ross Massey (5-2, 1.64) on Saturday.
“The wind blows out (at UCF’s Jay Bergman Field), so they have to trust and believe in what they’re doing here and take that on the road,” Pierce said. “I’m very confident in both of them.”
Coming off its first weekend-series loss of the year to Cincinnati, Tulane still hopes to contend for the regular season AAC title. The Wave is fifth out of eight teams but only 1 ½ games out of first.
That’s where the confidence-building blowout of Southern Miss, which is ranked 19th by Collegiate Baseball magazine, could help the most.
“It was huge,” said shortstop Stephen Alemais, who had his first multiple-hit game since April 5. “A lot of us had been struggling. It’s not a secret, so it was good for us just to get it going. We have a lot of conference games left and it’s going to come down to the wire.”
Pierce will give struggling Sunday starter Alex Massey (3-4, 5.86), a senior with 15 career victories, another shot to regain his form. ... The all-time series between Tulane and UCF is tied at 17. ... Tickets have sold out for Tulane’s home game against LSU next Tuesday. The Wave beat the Tigers 7-1 March 29 at Alex Box Stadium.