HOUSTON — A host of problems has put the Tulane baseball team on the brink of its worst season in coach Rick Jones’ 20-year tenure. Strangely, the ability to bounce back from tough losses has not been one of them.
Rarely brilliant, the Green Wave (28-28) has been resilient.
They’ll need to call on that quality again at 11 a.m. Friday to maintain any hope of winning the Conference USA tournament after coughing up a 6-2 lead and losing 10-7 to Southern Miss in their opener Wednesday.
Beating No. 3 seed East Carolina (30-25), a 9-4 loser to No. 6 Houston on Thursday, is the first requirement in a four-step process that would put Tulane in the championship game.
Steps two through four: Houston needs to beat Southern Miss on Friday afternoon, Tulane has to beat Houston on Saturday afternoon and East Carolina has to beat Southern Miss on Saturday night in a game that would be meaningless to the Pirates and mean everything to the Golden Eagles.
In that scenario, Tulane and Houston would have the best record in their pod, and the Wave would get the tiebreaker based on beating the Cougars.
“We’ve got history as recently as last year (UAB) that you can go 2-1 and still get in the championship game and win it,” Jones said after Tulane’s frustrating loss to Southern Miss. “You have to have some help, and obviously we have to stay up and try to play our best baseball.”
They’ve done it before.
In March, Tulane lost to UNO at Turchin Stadium but recovered from that humiliation (the Privateers went 7-44) three days later to beat Memphis 6-4. The Green Wave then lost to Memphis 16-0 but rebounded to take the series decider 3-2.
In April, Tulane blew a late two-run lead to East Carolina a day after falling to the Pirates in 13 innings. The Wave managed to win in 12 innings.
In May, Tulane was one inning away from beating Houston in a series clincher before allowing two runs in the ninth and losing 3-2. The Wave responded by thumping UCF 8-1 and 15-9 in its next two conference games.
The latest loss could be the toughest to overcome because Tulane’s NCAA regional hopes are in the balance.
“If we come out here and win these next two games, there’s definitely still a chance,” said freshman Tim Yandel, who had three hits Wednesday. “That’s what we have to tell ourselves.”
The problem is Tulane went deep into its bullpen against Southern Miss. David Napoli, who would have started against Houston Saturday, pitched to four batters. Long reliever Kyle McKenzie threw 26 pitches, and middle reliever Andrew Garner tossed 37.
“We invested so much into today trying to win this game because we know what the stakes are,” Jones said. “It just didn’t fall our way.”
The pressure will be on Friday starter Alex Byo (5-4, 2.68 ERA) to go deep. He has pitched at least seven innings in his last four starts, winning three in a row.
If he continues his hot streak, the Wave will become huge Houston fans for the next game, hoping to stay alive another day.
Jones said Randy LeBlanc would be his starting pitcher Saturday, with Napoli moving back to Sunday’s championship game if Tulane somehow gets there.
If not, Tulane will win its fewest number of games in the Jones era. The previous low was 31 in 2011.
“You just have to play now, win the two games and keep your fingers crossed,” Jones said. “You have to hope that something that hasn’t happened much for you all year happens and you get a break.”
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