Tulane baseball’s cardiac start similar to 1987 Green Wave
That great philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Through seven games of the 2015 season, Tulane’s baseball team has been living up to that mantra, finding a way to win close games in the late innings – clutch home runs, singles, even walks and wild pitches.
Heading into Tuesday night’s opener of the First NBC Cup with the University of New Orleans on the Lakefront, the Green Wave is 6-1, with four of the wins in its final at-bat – a pair of ninth-inning road comebacks against Pepperdine and Southeastern Louisiana and a pair of home walk-off wins over the weekend against San Francisco.
As remarkable as the start has been, though, it’s not unprecedented.
Twenty-eight years ago, a Tulane team coming off a run to a regional final in 1986 against LSU had to replace several key players and went into 1987 unranked and under radar. But in the first four weeks of the season, Joe Brockhoff’s team went 15-4 with 10 wins in its final at-bat, nine of them to end the game. Back then, the term “walk-off” hadn’t yet become common baseball parlance.
(Full disclosure: I was a student assistant in the sports information department at Tulane in the spring of 1987, in charge of baseball publicity.)
What was already going to be a memorable start to the 1987 season – the Green Wave, UNO and LSU would welcome Florida, Florida State and Miami for the first-ever Busch Challenge in the Superdome (watch the Tulane highlights here) – would quickly become memorable for on-the-field reasons.
In the opener against Florida, Tulane fell behind 10-1 in the fourth inning. Three errors by the Green Wave had opened the doors for seven unearned runs by the Gators.
Tulane began its rally in the bottom of the fifth inning. David Smith doubled in two runs and three batters later, Ronnie Brown belted a grand slam to pull Tulane within 10-7. The Wave would put the leadoff man on base in each of the next three innings, but could not push him across.
But in the bottom of the ninth, Tulane loaded the bases with one out on a walk and two singles. After a force play at the plate produced the second out, left fielder Rob Elkins – who entered the game as a pinch hitter in the fifth inning – yanked an 0-1 pitch from Florida reliever Scott Sanford over the right-field wall for a game-winning grand slam.
Ricky Pursell, who blanked the Gators for the final five innings to keep Tulane in the game, earned the victory.
“We never felt we were out of the game,” Pursell recalled this week. “The hype (of the Busch Challenge) was there to start the season. I just tried to keep putting goose eggs up there. We put that last inning together … and it was just exhilarating, unbelievable.
Brockhoff said the Florida game set the tone for the rest of 1987. “If we can come back against a team like that, we were never going to be out of a ballgame,” he said. “Of all the years at Tulane, that was the miracle game of them all. Ricky held them down, and we came back. The home run was just magical.
“To me, it made me feel really good. If you can come back (nine) runs down against Florida, we’re going to have a good year. We’re going to score runs.”
Elkins and Pursell would be a common thread during the hot start.
Two days later, Elkins’ game-winning single capped a two-run rally in the bottom of the 10th against Miami, making a winner of Pursell.
“Not only did (the Florida) game set a tone, but we started winning games the same way,” Brockhoff said. “I said, ‘Guys, let’s get on top for a change.’”
The following weekend, Tulane swept a two-game series from then-Northeast Louisiana, both in walk-off fashion, on singles by Brown and Brian Reaney.
Billy Rapp’s bases-loaded walk wrapped up an extra-inning win over Southern Miss. A two-run homer by Elkins capped a two-game series sweep of Indiana State. An error in the bottom of the ninth gave Tulane a win over Ole Miss.
The season was 10 games old, Tulane was 9-1 with seven walk-off victories, and Pursell had seven of the wins, all in relief, drawing from the inspiration of the passing of his father the previous fall.
“Overnight, I had to grow up,” Pursell said. “Going into that season, I remember sitting down with Coach Brockhoff and asked him to please give me an opportunity to prove myself. Every time I got the opportunity, I was going to do my very best to help the team.
“It was almost like the team felt if I could go out there and throw a scoreless inning, the bats could do their magic. I attribute a lot of my success to the offensive side.”
The drama wasn’t over, however. An 11-10 victory over Texas-Arlington on a David Smith single again made a winner of Pursell. The next day, Smith’s homer gave Tulane a last at-bat win over Missouri, and two days after that, also against Mizzou, Brown’s walk-off single gave the Wave another win.
“When you get going like that, it’s contagious,” said Rapp, who played injured the entire 1987 season. “There’s no explanation for it. We just made it all click and had a lot of good fortune.”
That first month propelled Tulane to a 44-18 campaign and a second straight NCAA berth.
How will the start of the 2015 Green Wave, under first-year head coach David Pierce, translate?
“I know (the start) is unexpected, coming off a season like last year,” Brockhoff said. “Confidence is a big factor in baseball, and you’ve just got to build on that confidence.”
Much like the 1987 edition of the Green Wave was able to do.
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Lenny was involved in college athletics starting in the early 1980s, when he began working Tulane University sporting events while still attending Archbishop Rummel High School. He continued that relationship as a student at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1987. For the next 11 years, Vangilder worked in the sports information offices at Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-Lafayette) and Tulane;…