Batting second in the lineup for only the third time this season, freshman catcher Jake Rogers came up with a key hit to start the 10th inning in Tulane’s 3-2 streak-busting win against McNeese State on Tuesday.
If he builds on that success, the Green Wave will have a much better chance to dig itself out of a huge hole and qualify for the Conference USA tournament. Mired in 11th place — three spots out of the running — the Wave (15-20, 6-11) travels to cellar-dweller Charlotte (9-24, 2-13) for a series starting Thursday that will determine whether it has a realistic shot to climb into the top eight by the end of the regular season.
Rogers already is outstanding defensively, having thrown out 21 of 41 base stealers this season, by far the most of any Conference USA catcher. His bat has been the problem, his .194 average even lower than Tulane’s conference-worst .228 total.
Lately, though, he has started to come out of his season-long funk. His single in the 10th versus McNeese extended his hitting streak to four games, validating interim coach Jake Gautreau’s decision to move him from eighth to second in the order.
“Jake is really good with handling the bat when you’re trying to put things in motion,” Gautreau said. “He can bunt well. He can hit-and-run very well. His last three or four games have been very positive as far as his approach and having consistent at-bats and swings. He’s staying back on the baseball and not trying to do too much.”
Rogers’ role as a starter never has been in question. Coach Rick Jones, who will sit out the rest of the year because of health concerns, labeled him one of the best defensive catchers he had coached in the preseason. He has caught all but two games, improving dramatically on predecessor Cameron Burns’ success rate on steal attempts.
The only thing more striking about Rogers than his accuracy is his humility.
“I’ve always had a below-average arm,” he said. “It’s gotten a lot better since I’ve been here, but having a below-average arm as a high schooler, I came up with a quick release that helps me throw runners out.”
Gautreau laughed at Rogers’ comment about his arm strength. No other Tulane starting catcher this century has thrown out even one-third of would-be base-stealers. Rogers is above 50 percent 35 games into the season.
“He’s got an above-average arm,” Gautreau said. “He’s really quick at getting rid of the baseball. He may not have as strong of an arm as the guys with the ‘plus’ arms, but he makes up for lost time with the quickness and the accuracy of his throws.”
Part of a 14-player freshman class that was rated 23rd nationally by Perfect Game, Rogers, from Canyon, Texas, chose Tulane over Oklahoma because he felt the coaches were more honest and the atmosphere was more welcoming.
He still feels that way despite a stressful year with Jones’ health issues, the team-wide hitting woes and Tulane’s descent below .500. Unless the Wave gets hot down the stretch, it will finish with a losing record for the first time since 1993, the year before Jones arrived.
Tulane, which is 21/2 games out of eighth place in C-USA, could miss the league tournament for only the second time in 19 seasons.
“It’s frustrating, but you have to want to be out there,” Rogers said. “I’m just trying to figure things out. There’s been nothing really that overpowering from the pitchers. Just figuring out the six inches between the ears is the hard part.”
Tulane hopes to kick-start a late-season surge Thursday against Charlotte with freshman Corey Merrill (0-2, 5.16 ERA) looking for his first win. Gautreau is keeping his top two pitchers, Randy LeBlanc and Tyler Mapes, in their normal Friday and Saturday slots.
All of them can benefit from Rogers’ renewed confidence at the plate. He may not get a chance to show off his arm accuracy — the 49ers have stolen a conference-low seven bases.
For a second, Rogers forgot about being self-deprecating.
“I’m confident in what I can do,” he said. “Sometimes I hope they steal so I can throw them out.”