Middle Tennessee edges Tulane baseball in series finale

Just when it looked like Tulane’s baseball team was putting its struggles behind it, some familiar shortcomings struck again.

The Green Wave won the first two games of the weekend series and took an early three-run lead Sunday. But Tulane found itself thinking more about missed opportunities than momentum after its 5-4 loss to Middle Tennessee at Turchin Stadium.

It was the fifth consecutive week the Green Wave (12-11, 5-4 Conference USA) ended a series with a loss, dating to the season’s opening weekend. It also was Tulane’s third consecutive game without coach Rick Jones, who missed the entire series with an unspecified illness.

The Blue Raiders (9-13, 5-4) overcame an early 4-1 deficit by stringing together a fourth-inning rally off Tulane starter Emerson Gibbs. Sean Miller laced a double down the left-field line to start the inning, then came around to score when Michael Adkins blooped a two-out single just past the infield.

“He made a great pitch, and that’s the unfortunate thing sometimes of playing with aluminum bats,” Tulane associate head coach Chad Sutter said. “He threw the ball exactly where he wanted to. If he could have walked down and placed the ball exactly where he wanted to, he would have placed it right there.”

More damage came two batters later when Jake Ingold’s bases-clearing double knotted the score at 4. Middle Tennessee notched the critical tiebreaking run at the start of the seventh when Ingold struck again, hitting a line-drive homer over the left-field wall off reliever Alex Massey.

From there, it was left up to Blue Raiders reliever Kooper Kessler, who silenced the Green Wave bats. Kessler threw five scoreless innings without allowing a hit as only one Tulane batter reached base.

Even when under pressure in the ninth — Barry Buchowski’s leadoff walk and Bowen Woodson’s sacrifice gave Tulane a chance to tie it with a runner in scoring position — Kessler induced Jake Rogers into a grounder to shortstop before sealing the victory on Stephen Alemais’ line drive to second baseman Austin Bryant.

“He was good,” Alemais said. “He was mixing it up and had us off-balance. We didn’t know if he was throwing a fastball or changeup or a slider.”

While Tulane’s offense shouldered most of the blame in the late innings, its defense aided Middle Tennessee at the game’s onset when it allowed the Blue Raiders to take their first lead of the weekend. Second baseman Jake Willsey misplayed Ryan Stephens’ line drive before catcher Cameron Burns’ errant throw pushed Stephens to third base. A Jared Allen dribbler to third pushed the run across.

Tulane drew three consecutive walks in the bottom of the inning, setting up Andrew Garner’s bases-clearing double into the left-field gap and giving the Green Wave a 3-1 lead.

An inning later, Alemais manufactured a run with his legs. The freshman bunted for a single down the third-base line, then stole second. He took third on a strikeout that required a throw to first base before coming home on Jake Willsey’s sacrifice fly.

It was the last threat the Green Wave mounted.

Tulane will host LSU at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday before traveling to Alabama-Birmingham next weekend for a C-USA series.

“We let a pretty good opportunity slip through our fingers,” Sutter said. “We’re going to come back out (Monday) and clear our heads and get ready for Tuesday. Obviously Tuesday is a big game. Big game for our guys, big game for the fans, big game for the state of Louisiana. We want to come out and play well.”