Andrew Garner heats up as Tulane hits homestretch

NEW ORLEANS — Because Tulane has been abysmal at the plate for most of this season, even modest hitting streaks deserve mention. The tear Andrew Garner has been on in the last three weeks, though, would be newsworthy for any team in any era.

Garner, a junior who was batting .191 in late April, has raised that average more than 100 points by going 29-for-49 (.592) in his last 11 games. Amid that torrid stretch, he went 5-for-5 with seven RBIs, two doubles, a triple and a home run last Saturday at UCF, becoming the first Green Wave player to hit for the cycle since Michael Aubrey in 2001.

If his bat remains hot for the final regular-season series against UAB (20-33, 5-16 Conference USA) starting Thursday at Turchin Stadium, the Wave will feel much better about its chances in the league tournament tournament next week — a must-win event for Tulane (27-25, 10-11) to end its four-year streak of missing the NCAA tournament.

“I knew I was capable of it, but it’s kind of weird that it’s happened this late,” said Garner, whose .297 average is now second-best on the team. “I’m just finally getting comfortable. I’m seeing the ball a little better.”

That’s the understatement of the year. Garner has more hits in his last 11 games than in his first 38 (25), when he reached his low point by going 0-for-5 on April 12 and giving up the winning run in a 12-inning loss to East Carolina while pulling double-duty on the mound.

“He’s gotten a much better feeling for the strike zone,” Tulane coach Rick Jones said. “Until then, he was swinging at a lot of pitches outside the strike zone, a lot of breaking balls maybe that he couldn’t get to, and then he would get defensive and maybe take a fastball that (he) could really get on if he wasn’t being defensive.

“Now he’s sitting on pitches that he can get to and not chasing as many bad ones. When you see a guy like that get in a zone, it’s hard not to be impressed.”

Garner’s biggest days have come away from home, a fact not lost on Jones. He had a pair of four-hit outings at Marshall before exploding against UCF with six extra-base hits in three days as Tulane scored 26 runs.

Even that power surge was not enough to lift the Green Wave from last place in Conference USA in hitting and runs.

“Our ballpark has been a graveyard this year,” Jones said. “The wind has been blowing in most days, it’s been cold most days and nobody’s really hit for a whole lot of power here. We got down there (at UCF) with the wind blowing out, warm weather and a smaller park, and it was nice to see a guy rewarded for getting good swings on the ball.”

Garner laughed about the reaction from his teammates after he hit for the cycle. They asked him what he ate for breakfast and lunch because they wanted to copy him. Not superstitious, he changed his routine the next day.

Jones just wants to make sure Garner keeps his routine on the field. A late bloomer, he played more often as a relief pitcher (17 times) than in the lineup (five times) as a freshman. He was pretty good in both roles as a sophomore, posting a 3.21 ERA and a .289 average in 30 starts, primarily at designated hitter.

But he was nothing like he’s been in the last three weeks. In addition to his hitting, he has earned saves in his last two relief appearances and been solid in right field.

“He’s learning on the job, but he also has a competitive upside,” Jones said. “He’s gotten so much better as an outfielder. He’s gotten so much better as a base runner. I’m excited about getting a chance to keep coaching him.”

Lagniappe

Tulane ace pitcher Tony Rizzotti likely will miss his second consecutive start with a lower-back strain. Jones said Rizzotti might be available for short relief Saturday, but not if it would jeopardize his health for the conference tournament. ... Shortstop Brennan Middleton, who sprained an ankle last Friday at UCF, is questionable for the weekend. ... This series has little significance for Tulane, which is pretty much locked into the seventh seed for the C-USA tournament and can’t fall farther.