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Tulane last reached the College World Series in 2005 with its best team in school history, a squad that was the top national seed with studs such as Micah Owings and Brian Bogusevic leading the charge. That team began Conference USA play that season with a 16-3 record.
This year’s Tulane team enters the Southern Mississippi series and C-USA play this weekend with a 17-4 record.
That’s not to imply this year’s Green Wave club is as good as that ’05 team. It’s most certainly not. However, coach Rick Jones and his coaching staff are doing a fantastic job this spring and have the program back in position to perhaps accomplish more than just fighting for an NCAA postseason berth.
“Even with the fact we’re off to a hot start, it doesn’t change anything for us. It doesn’t take any pressure off us entering conference,” Jones said. “It’s really early for us, and I can remember how we started conference last year on the mound. It wasn’t pretty.”
Fortunately for Jones and the Green Wave, much has changed on the mound since last season. And that’s with a few key injuries.
The Green Wave finished last season with a rough 5.73 ERA. So far this season, the Green Wave has a 2.38 ERA with several key arms leading the way. But Randy LeBlanc and Alex Byo are two arms the Green Wave don’t have.
LeBlanc was a heralded high school recruit the Green Wave was ecstatic to get on campus. However, he suffered an arm injury in his third start and will miss the rest of the season. Byo, meanwhile, recently had an inflammation in his arm flare up and will miss at least the next month with the ailment. Robby Broach, who’s in the weekend rotation against the Golden Eagles, also has had his own bout with injuries, recently missing time because of a forearm strain.
LeBlanc had a 2.87 ERA in 15 2/3 innings and Byo had a 0.59 ERA in 15 1/3 innings. To say the least, those are tough arms to replace. But somehow the Green Wave hasn’t skipped a beat the past couple of weeks. Jones, of course, wonders if that trend continues in conference play.
“Depth-wise, our pitching staff definitely could be a concern moving forward,” he said. “Some other guys have pitched well, but we’re missing key parts of our rotation. Losing LeBlanc was a very big blow, as was losing a guy like Byo.”
So, how has the Green Wave had success without those two? It’s pretty simple; several arms have risen to the occasion.
Veteran starting pitcher Conrad Flynn has been fantastic this season, and has a 2.32 ERA in 31 innings with opponents hitting just .226 against him. Sophomore right-hander Kyle McKenzie also has risen to the occasion with a 3.43 ERA in 21 innings, with opponents hitting him at just a .238 clip.
Broach, who is slated to start this weekend after a successful simulated performance on Wednesday, has a 5.68 ERA in 12 2/3 innings, but is much better than his numbers indicate.
“Broach is a guy that’s 87-89 and that touched 90-91 in the preseason. He looked a lot like the guy we signed out of high school,” Jones said. “But that forearm strain has affected him, not so much with the fastball, but with the impact of his breaking ball.”
The starters, even some banged up, aren’t the only arms that have stepped up.
David Napoli has appeared in four games and has a 1.76 ERA in 15 1/3 innings, Alex Facundus used to throw over the top but dropped his arm angle and now has a 1.77 ERA in 20 1/3 innings and Drew Zizinia has a 1.96 ERA in 18 1/3 innings.
“Our starters have given us some nice outings through seven or eight innings, setting the tone for the bullpen,” Jones said. “We’re going to have to stay healthy outside of the guys we’ve already lost to injury.”
Though several pitchers have done well, the Green Wave must give the most credit to veteran right-handed closer Nick Pepitone. The righty has been fantastic this spring, earning nine saves in 14 appearances and entering the USM series with a 2.29 ERA in 19 2/3 innings. He also is limiting teams to a .206 average.
“He’s an experienced guy who has some pitches that are tough to handle,” he said. “He’s maybe 87-88 and topping out occasionally at 90 with his fastball, but that’s not his out pitch. He has a consistent power sinker that we taught him as a freshman.”
Overall, what this Tulane pitching staff and team is accomplishing is very impressive. The Green Wave ranks 19 nationally in ERA, 29 in walks per nine innings, and is limiting teams to a .221 average.
“Thank goodness we have pitched well this season. You can’t underestimate the job that pitching coach Chad Sutter is doing. He has just been phenomenal,” he said. “Look at how many injuries we have had, and look at how many have stepped up.”
As much as the pitching staff has set the tone for the Green Wave, how this team fairs the rest of the season hinges on their offense, which enters the weekend ranked 226 nationally with just a .259 batting average.
Eight of the Green Wave’s 17 victories this season are by one run, and Jones admits he’s worried about offensive production the rest of the way.
“We’re not a very physical offensive club, but we have guys that were productive last season that aren’t doing a very good job this year,” he said. “I’ve got to believe our hitters are going to get better as the season progresses. They need to because there will come a point when we’re going to have to outscore people.”
Fortunately with the pitching staff the Green Wave possesses, injuries or not, outscoring opponents likely isn’t something that will be needed too often.
In a young season that already has been filled with setbacks, the Green Wave just continues to flourish.
And for that Jones deserves plenty of credit.
Kendall Rogers is the managing editor of college baseball for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org