Tulane Baseball Enters the AAC Race after Sweeping Wichita State
Green Wave is riding a six game win streak after the series of the year
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Before I talk about the Wichita State series, I want to go back to a critical moment of the Tulane’s 2021 season. On February 28th, Luis Aviles smashed a homerun in the top of the ninth to take a 4-3 lead over #5 Mississippi State in the rubber match in Starkville.
Two days before, Tulane had opened its second weekend of the season with a bang, as Braden Olthoff’s gem received “mainstream” national attention when the Green Wave star was accused of using a foreign substance on his glove. While Olthoff was cleared (as it turned out that his pitches were just really dang good on their own), the Tulane-Mississippi State series went into a thermonuclear standoff between the two schools (see the video below).
On Saturday of the series, the Bulldogs evened things with a walk off setting up an absolute grudge match in Starkvegas on Sunday. After the Aviles dinger in the closing inning of the matchup, Tulane went to the bottom of the ninth with a lead as the Wave tried to escape with the undisputed signature victory of the Jewett Era.
Instead, this incredibly chippy series ended with State walking off victorious when Tanner Allen plated two off a single in the bottom of the the ninth.
The State series lost, to me, felt like the end of a mini-era that ran from 2020 through receiving the first national Top 25 ranking in years to shutting down due to the pandemic to returning to 2021 with high hopes of returning to the postseason by ending the Wave’s drought.
From this point, the next month would sputter with a 7-9 clunker of a stretch that ended with a series loss to Grand Canyon (the online college based in Arizona, not the national landmark of glory and wonder). The Green Wave had inexplicably fallen out of the RPI Top 100. Tulane did not seem to pose much of a threat to anyone on the conference schedule, let alone an East Carolina team that may be on a path to a national NCAA seed.
Tulane Closes a Series Sweep in the Ninth
Fast forward to this Sunday and Tulane was back on the ropes in the ninth inning. This time, the Wave was looking to complete their first sweep of the season against a very promising looking Wichita State who came to New Orleans second in the AAC and with a Top 45 RPI.
In the top of the ninth, the Shockers brought in a run with no outs to make the game 8-7. With tension rising, freshman right hander Zach DeVito rose to the occasion and managed to close the door by turning a double play with Chase Engelhard and Collin Burns.
This win would reshape the whole look of the AAC standings. The Wave moved to 6-1 in the AAC to jump Wichita State for sole possession of second place, 1.5 games back of East Carolina with Wichita and UCF now trailing.
With the performances this weekend, Tulane turned in - in my view - the most complete, dominant series of baseball we have seen this year out of the club. After starting with another solid outing from Olthoff (10 strikeouts, 3 earned runs), we consistently saw pitchers step up this weekend like senior Keagan Gillies in Game Two who turned in three innings of relief work with seven strikeouts.
If a pair of ninth inning disasters started a skid for the Green Wave, it may have been a steady performance in the ninth to close out a sweep that ended it. Tulane has now won six straight games, all of which were in conference, and the whole momentum of this program is now pointing toward the goals that they started the year with: to make the postseason and to compete for the AAC.
Tulane Receives National Attention and Gets Ready for Memphis
Writers like Baseball America’s Teddy Cahill took notice that Tulane has put its hat back in the ring for a potential postseason run:
And this is no small feat. Let’s call a spade “a spade.” That hope felt almost entirely out of reach two weeks ago when the Wave had fallen south of the RPI Top 100. The narrative has completely changed as Tulane has moved up to RPI #72 at the time of this writing.
Most importantly, Tulane faces a manageable stretch in the next two series that could fortify the Wave’s position in this conference race. Next weekend, Tulane heads to Memphis (12-22) for another four games against the RPI #133 Tigers. In the first matchup between the clubs, Tulane took three of the last four to win the opening series of league play. Memphis has floundered since then to a league worst 1-9 record.
After Memphis, Tulane will host a #191 Houston team (13-18) that has started 1-7 and had their series this weekend canceled, in full, against East Carolina. The Cougards, a long-time leader in the AAC, are solidly in second to last at the moment.
If those eight games are played as scheduled (which I’m keeping fingers crossed for as there is no guarantee in the pandemic environment), Tulane could set up a big time matchup in Greenville against ECU in May. We’ll see where both teams are, but Tulane would control its destiny up to that point with the opportunity to gain pole position in the league race against a very elite-looking ECU. The stakes would be very high.
There’s a lot that can happen between then and now, and it will all come down to the Wave’s ability to execute against two struggling clubs. If Tulane can continue to deliver the types of performances they saw on the mound this week with the hitting of players like Engelhard and Burns, then this season is just warming up.
By the Numbers: RPI Needs for Tulane
What kind of finish will Tulane need in order to get on the right side of the bubble? Let’s take stock using the work of Boyd’s World. Please note, this analysis was last done on Saturday, so Tulane already has 1 of the home wins it will need to move into the RPI Top 45 or higher.
Tulane has 9 home games left and 10 on the road. Boyd’s World projects that Tulane would need to win about 14 more games to make the Top 45 and 18 of 19 games to make the Top 32:
This shows you that Tulane certainly has a path to be in the bubble conversation in a serious way, particularly because the AAC is currently ranked as the fifth best league in RPI. Finishing first or second in this league would be deserving of attention from the committee at tournament time.
For the Green Wave, this Wichita State sweep was a game changer in putting the goals of this 2021 season back on the table in a very real way. Now, Tulane will look to deliver on that promise when the club heads to Memphis next weekend.