Tulane’s long odds in its Baton Rouge regional opener lengthened exponentially when LSU used ace Paul Skenes, the Collegiate Baseball national player of the year, on Friday.
As has been the case for nearly everyone Skenes has faced, the Green Wave fell short, but its 7-2 loss at Alex Box Stadium did nothing to dent its confidence moving forward.
“I really like our chances (Saturday),” said fifth-year senior Brennan Lambert, a Baton Rouge native who broke up Skenes’ shutout bid with a two-run homer to right-center field in the seventh inning. “We’re swinging the bat well, throwing the ball well and playing pretty good defense. If we keep this up, I think we can play until Sunday and maybe Monday.”
Monday would be a winner-take-all championship game, but Tulane’s first task will be to stay alive at 2 p.m. Saturday against Friday night’s loser between No. 2 seed Oregon State and No. 3 seed Sam Houston State.
Even in defeat, Tulane (19-41) looked nothing like the team that set a school record for losses and much more like the group that won the American Athletic Conference tournament to create this improbable postseason opportunity.
LSU coach Jay Johnson never felt comfortable enough to remove Skenes (11-2), allowing him to throw his first complete game on a season-high 124 pitches.
“I’d like to take that as a measure of respect,” Tulane coach Jay Uhlman said. “We’ll live to fight another day.”
Jake LaPrairie nearly gave the Wave a 2-1 lead with a deep fly in the second inning, but right fielder Brayden Jobert made a leaping catch in front of the wall. Simon Baumgardt, running on the pitch, was doubled off first base while standing on third.
LaPrairie also scorched a line drive that Skenes spectacularly caught in between his legs, again leading to a double play that killed a potential rally.
Brady Marget singled in the fifth after fouling off four consecutive two-strike pitches, scoring on Lambert’s home run.
I was just trying to get a fastball out over the plate,” Lambert said. “I stayed with my approach and got a good pitch to hit. The chips fell that way, so it was pretty special.”
That blast cut the deficit to 6-2. The Wave even forced a mound visit from Johnson in the eighth after back-to-back two-out singles. Skenes then got a routine fly ball down the right-field line from AAC tournament MVP Teo Banks, who flew out to the warning track in straightaway center field in his previous at-bat.
The day featured small ball from LSU, which hit zero home runs for the second consecutive game after a 29-game stretch with at least one. The Tigers had two sacrifices and two sacrifice flies, and did next to nothing against freshman reliever Michael Lombardi, who retired eight in a row at one point.
Tulane starter Dylan Carmouche (5-9) allowed nine hits and six runs in four innings, but the score would have been lower without a couple of defensive mistakes. Carmouche missed first base while covering the bag at the start of the second, leading to a pair of runs and a 3-0 deficit. Third baseman Simon Baumgardt could not field a sharp grounder that shortstop Gavin Schulz was in position to grab leading off the third, helping LSU go ahead 4-0.
“To play championship baseball, you’ve got to play defense and pitch and not give away free runs,” Uhlman said. “It makes it challenging to come back against anyone, but particularly against Paul Skenes.”
The Wave will not face Skenes on Saturday. With just slightly cleaner play, they anticipate a more favorable result.
“The resilience our guys have shown all year and the mentality at which they are going about it, I feel really good about where we are," Uhlman said. "Our backs have been against the wall all year.”