Center fielder Teo Banks hit so poorly early in the year, he lost his spot in Tulane’s starting lineup for six games and batted near the bottom of the order for several others upon his return.
It would be hard to top the way he has turned around his season.
By the end of the Green Wave’s stunning run in the American Athletic Conference tournament, he was the most feared hitter in the league. His 11-for-21 performance in the two-hole with 11 RBIs, eight runs and three homers earned him Most Outstanding Player honors and will make him a major concern for any pitcher who faces Tulane (19-40) in the Baton Rouge regional — beginning with top seed LSU (43-15) at 2 p.m. Friday at Alex Box Stadium.
“We thought he was one of the best players in the country,” said Houston coach Todd Whitting after Banks’ six RBIs put Tulane in the AAC title game. “He’s got power. He’s got speed. He’s a great player to build that program around.”
There is no good explanation for why Banks, who was a 12th-round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs coming out of Odessa (Texas) Permian High, struck out 17 times in his first 24 at-bats this spring, and was hitting .202 as late as April 6. He has rendered it irrelevant, though.
Since going 0 for 4 during the Wave’s AAC road opener against South Florida, he is 44 for 122 (.361) with 14 home runs, 38 RBIs and 36 runs in 29 games.
It was to the point that East Carolina coach Cliff Godwin praised his pitchers for not giving up an extra-base hit to Banks in the championship game even though he started 3 for 3.
“He’s a really good player,” Godwin said. “We were happy that he hit singles off us. He definitely poses a problem for anybody that’s pitching against him.”
Banks remained outwardly confident even in the worst of his slump. He did not sulk when coach Jay Uhlman benched him, accepting his role as a pinch hitter while never missing a game entirely and ultimately finding a way to fix whatever ailed him.
In a way, he was a microcosm for the entire team, which never lost faith despite losing more often than any group in school history.
“He is intently focused, hyper-athletic, ultra-competitive, a winner in every sense,” Uhlman said. “When he’s up there, we all feel good. For him to finish the way he has, what a spectacular performance.”
Banks enters the regional with seven home runs in nine games, but he is much more than a long-ball hitter. He can shorten his swing and go the opposite way when necessary, as he did on his third straight hit against East Carolina.
After getting too far out in front of a mistake pitch up in the zone and fouling it off when his eyes got big anticipating a three-run homer, he poked an RBI single to right field that led to a three-run, go-ahead inning. He exhibited the same ability last year, hitting .317 in 63 at-bats over 17 games despite missing a huge chunk of the year with a hand injury.
“I was just trying to stay deep and do the job, whether that was to get the runner from second to third or drive him over,” he said. “The result ended up better than that.”
His teammates swear by Banks.
“He’s a big-leaguer,” senior Brennan Lambert said. “He’s super fun to be around. He’s very talented and his character is unbelievable. He’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had.
"He started off the season very tough, but he went to work. He didn’t drag his blanket and put his head down.”
Even the strikeouts, which remained an issue for most of the year, have diminished. Banks has not whiffed in five of his last eight games.
“I’m just trying to go up there and compete, even when I’m not seeing the ball well, knowing it’s me against the pitcher out there,” he said. “That’s helped me.”
The way he, and the Wave, overcame their issues should put them in good stead no matter what comes their way in Baton Rouge.
“We’re comfortable in adverse situations because we’ve had had more than I care to probably ever have again in my life,” Uhlman said. “The lessons our guys have gotten from how this season has unfolded have been enormous. They’ve been through it all.”