Tulane has plenty of options to fill pitching voids

Advocate file photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Tulane reliever Kyle McKenzie fires to the plate during a game last season. McKenzie earned a save Friday by pitching out of a bases-loaded jam in the ninth inning to seal Tulane’s 2-0 victory over Middle Tennessee. Show caption
Advocate file photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Tulane reliever Kyle McKenzie fires to the plate during a game last season. McKenzie earned a save Friday by pitching out of a bases-loaded jam in the ninth inning to seal Tulane’s 2-0 victory over Middle Tennessee.

“It’s just a lot of guys and plenty of them looked really good, so that was encouraging. But, you know, it doesn’t make it any easier to decide.” RICK JONES, Tulane coach on settling on a pitching rotation

Nothing is penciled-in on the Tulane baseball pitching rotation.

In fact, there hasn’t even been a scribble or a scratch or any indelible mark made. Nearly a week into preseason practice, Green Wave coach Rick Jones is keeping his options open.

And he has plenty of them.

After losing all three of last year’s weekend starters to either the pro baseball draft or graduation, there is a significant void to fill on the mound. So the scenarios and possibilities were racing through Jones’ mind as he watched a pair of intrasquad scrimmages at Turchin Stadium last weekend.

The Green Wave’s only noticeable absence is closer Ian Gibaut, who is likely out for the season-opening weekend against Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Feb. 14, but is expected to return by the end of February.

“It’s just a lot of guys and plenty of them looked really good, so that was encouraging,” Jones said. “But, you know, it doesn’t make it any easier to decide. Some of the freshmen arms were strong, and we have a bunch of guys back who have either been in weekend roles before and are certainly capable of coming back and pitching well in those spots again.”

The most attention was paid to right-handers Tyler Mapes and Alex Massey who each suffered season-ending injuries last spring. Both took the mound last weekend for the first time in nearly a year.

While Jones said he’s still a bit concerned with Mapes’ velocity and Massey’s control following their initial outing, he’s overjoyed to have their arms at his disposal again. And they’re relieved just to be back on a baseball field.

“There’s nothing worse than sitting in that dugout and watching your teammates struggle while you can’t do anything to help,” said Mapes, who underwent Tommy John surgery following his second start last season. “It felt great to just be back out there for the first time in 10 months.

“I was throwing so well last year, then suddenly I was down. So it’s been hard to get everything going but I’ve been focusing on my command and I thought I had it down on Saturday, which was nice.”

Massey hasn’t pitched since the 2012 season, when he compiled a 3.56 ERA, striking out 46 batters while surrendering 14 walks during 511⁄3 innings as a freshman. After a few promising preseason bullpen sessions in 2013, he was ultimately shut out from throwing a single pitch last year because of a shoulder injury.

“It’s going to take a little time to get it all back, but overall I think I took a big step just to get the confidence that I can throw 100 percent and not have to worry about pain in my shoulder anymore,” Massey said. “There are still some control issues I have to work out, but I think I’ll get that back with some more time on the mound.”

Although the return of two potential starters to the roster is the most obvious place to look when tracking a weekend rotation, Jones said there are a number of directions he can go. Veterans Randy LeBlanc and Kyle McKenzie have flashed dominating abilities, and both are hopeful they’ll be able to overcome consistency issues this season.

Jones said each will have an opportunity to earn their way into a starting role, but they’ll have to prove themselves to be more capable than not only experienced pitchers like Mapes and Massey, but a litany of freshmen.

“We had so many guys throw well this weekend that I feel like I could hardly remember them all,” Jones said. “The way Corey Merrill, J.P. France, Andrew Culp and a whole bunch of others pitched, I think me and my staff have a pretty difficult set of decisions in front of us though.

“We saw it last year though, you can never have too many arms. We’ve had so many pitchers go down the past few years that what we always think is a strength at this time of the year can go away pretty quickly. So we need everyone to be ready.”