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No. 19 Tulane poised for big season on the diamond

            Tulane baseball started the 2016 season in dramatic fashion last weekend, winning their opening series, 2-1, against Big 10 power Illinois. The Green Wave proved worthy of their No. 19 national ranking with strong starting pitching, the ability to manufacture runs, and power when it was needed. If they can improve their relief pitching a return to the postseason should be easily attainable, and a return to the College World Series not out of the realm of possibility.  

            Opening day was highlighted by redshirt junior Jeremy Montalbano’s 10th inning, three-run, walk-off home run, which gave Tulane a 6-5 win. Tulane scored two runs in the game and rode junior starting pitcher Corey Merrill’s six inning, seven strike out performance, but gave up two runs in the top of the ninth to send it to extra innings. The Fighting Illini scored three in the top of the tenth before Grant Brown and Hunter Williams took a base on balls, Lex Caplan singled to bring in Brown, and Montalbano crushed a slider over the left-center field wall to win the game.

“That was as good as it gets,” said Tulane baseball head coach David Pierce. “Again we just hung in there. Just a super finish.”

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            On Saturday, redshirt-senior Alex Massey combined with redshirt-junior Christian Colletti to shut out Illinois, 3-0. Massey struck out a career-high eight batters, while giving up four hits and walking three in seven innings. Colletti punched out two in two relief innings.

            Tulane looked as if they would sweep the opening series on Sunday. The Wave held a 2-0 lead through seven, but couldn’t secure the win, giving up five runs in the last two innings. Starting pitcher Emerson Gibbs hurled six and a third innings, striking out six, but five relief pitchers couldn’t prevent Illinois’ late inning onslaught.            

            “The starting pitching was great all weekend,” David Pierce said after Sunday’s game. “We were bad in the bullpen, and we have to fix that. Today, we just didn’t put the ball in play when we had guys in scoring position, and that was the biggest killer for us early on.”

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            Tulane got good work from Colletti and middle reliever J.P. France over the weekend, but if this team has a weakness at this point it’s relief pitching. Late scoring by Illinois in games one and three almost cost Tulane the series. It highlighted the need to develop the bullpen. It’s the beginning of the season, and Pierce is giving several relievers an opportunity to prove themselves.

            After losing legendary coach Rick Jones two years ago, many loyal to the olive and blue were worried their ball club would suffer. The anxiety has proved to be unfounded, however. Pierce has a good club. They’re playing exciting baseball. Starting pitching has been dominating thus far, and they’re putting the ball in play at the plate. If late relief can be improved or, better yet, a dominant closer emerge, this could be a special season.  

 

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