By chance of good play and of the calendar, for the second straight weekend the American Athletic Conference (AAC) featured a matchup of two of its top teams as Tulane made a trip to Orlando to face UCF. The two teams entered the weekend in a three-way tie for the conference lead with East Carolina.
A well-pitched game took place on Friday night to open the series, with UCF coming out on top 2-1.
Tulane’s lone run came in the second inning on an RBI ground out by Trevor Minder to give the Green Wave an early lead.
Still trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the seventh, the Knights finally got to left-hander Dylan Carmouche for two runs in the inning. A throwing error by Tulane’s third baseman on an attempted sacrifice bunt by Michael Brooks led to the first run. Brooks ended up on second base on the play and scored two outs later on a single into shallow right field by Tom Josten.
Both starting pitchers lasted seven innings, with Ben Vespi (4-2) being one run better than Carmouche on Friday night. The Green Wave only collected three hits in the loss, while the Knights had five.
Saturday evening looked like another pitcher's duel early with the game tied at one going to the fifth inning. Starting pitcher Grant Siegel returned for Tulane after missing his Friday night start last weekend due to forearm soreness.
Ben McCabe hit a two-run home run with two outs to give UCF a 3-1 lead in the fifth. The home run drove Siegel from the game after 4 2/3 innings pitched in his return start; he allowed just two earned runs.
Brady Marget tied the game at three with a single in the seventh inning. Tulane scored three unearned runs in the eighth on only one hit, taking advantage of a throwing error, and the Green Wave led 6-4.
Each team added a run in the ninth inning, but that was all as Tulane took the middle game 7-5 to even the weekend series and set up a high-stakes matchup on Sunday.
The two squads both used six pitchers in the contest, after they each used just two pitchers in Friday’s opener.
Sunday’s game was scoreless into the bottom of the third inning on Sunday afternoon when Andrew Sundean delivered a one-out double down the left field line that rolled into the corner to score runners from first and second base. The Knights led 2-0.
A pop-up about fifteen feet from home plate was dropped when Tulane catcher Bennett Lee was run into by his own first baseman, allowing a run to score on the error. Moments later Brooks singled into left field with two outs and the Knights led 4-0 at the end of three innings.
After Tulane got a couple of runs back in their half of the fourth inning, the Knights responded with a three-run blast to left field by Gephry Pena and took a 7-2 lead into the fifth inning.
A fourth-inning weather delay put a halt to the proceedings for about 45 minutes.
After play resumed, Tulane picked up a pair of runs in the fifth inning and two more in the ninth to close the gap to 8-6, but a final rally in the ninth fizzled on an accidental check-swing comebacker to the mound ended the game and gave the Knights a 2-1 series win over the Green Wave.
Meanwhile, as noted previously, while two of the top three teams battled things out in Orlando, East Carolina was hosting Cincinnati up in Greenville this weekend. The Pirates swept that series and now stand alone atop The American at 11-4. Another interesting development transpired over the weekend: The Houston Cougars moved into a tie for second place with UCF after Houston swept South Florida in Tampa. Now the Cougars and the Knights are both 10-5 in the American, a game back of East Carolina.
Houston hosts UCF in two weekends before they themselves travel to East Carolina to close out the regular season. Houston also travels to Wichita State to take on the Shockers for a weekend; the Shockers have the worst record in the AAC.
UCF travels just down the road and stays in state to play a series at South Florida before the Knights head to Houston and then close out their regular season against Cincinnati in Orlando.
East Carolina has six games with Memphis and South Florida, two teams at the bottom of the rankings in the American, and to make it somewhat easier for the Pirates, they play their final six conference games at home.
Once again, after a shaky start for East Carolina, on the first day of May it looks like the American will be decided in Greenville.