Tulane’s Willsey Steals Show In San Diego
SAN DIEGO — The Tulane middle infield has a chance to be really special this season. Stephen Alemais is a preseason All-American at shortstop, and second baseman Jake Willsey seems to really be coming into his own as a junior. In a game that featured multiple All-America candidates and tons of offense, Willsey stole the show on Friday afternoon in a back-and-forth 11-10 win over Arizona to open the Tony Gwynn Classic.
He showed something new that his game didn’t have in the past — an ability to drive extra-base hits to all fields. Willsey entered the season with only seven career doubles and one triple in 87 games. He had never hit a home run, but got his first one opening weekend. He now has three career homers after collecting two homers and three total extra-base hits to different parts of the ballpark.
“During the offseason, I found my stroke a little bit. I found a little power, but what I really wanted to do was to drive it to all fields,” Willsey said. “I worked hard over the summer on my swing. I worked with some guys on swing mechanics. I trained hard in the gym with Eric Cressey. It’s just paying dividends I guess.”
After striking out in the first inning, Willsey was all over the ball the rest of the day. In the fourth inning, he hit a moonshot to right-center field that seemed like a routine fly off the bat, but kept drifting further and further until Arizona center fielder Jared Oliva was leaping at the wall to try to make a snag. The ball hit off the wall and Willsey pulled into second with an easy double.
He recaptured the lead for Tulane in the sixth inning with a line shot down the left field line that hooked just inside foul pole for a two-run homer and his biggest hit of the game came leading off the eighth inning, facing Bobby Dalbec.
“First pitch, he actually made me look pretty dumb on a slider,” Willsey said. “I was sitting dead red. He made a good pitch, but I knew he was coming back with it because if you look that bad on a slider, he’s going to come back with it. He left it up a little bit. I was just able to stay on it and drive it the other way.”
Willsey’s solo home run proved to be the difference in a wild, back-and-forth contest that featured six lead changes and moved the Green Wave to 4-1 on the season.
Here’s more observations and notes from the Tony Gwynn Classic’s opening round of games at Fowler Park:
Tulane 11, Arizona 10
- ♦ The Arizona/Tulane game had a postseason energy with both ball clubs showing a lot of energy and will to fight back after repeatedly falling behind. Both offenses were strong and both teams got a veteran pitching performance on the mound despite some poor stat lines. Corey Merrill really settled in and pitching his best baseball in his final two innings and Arizona’s Nathan Bannister was thrown in a tough spot having to enter the game in the first inning, but both battled and gave their respective teams quality innings.
The dugout enthusiasm, cheering and emotion was top notch, especially for an early season tournament game at a neutral site without a large crowd to back them. The teams were both locked in, which was evident from the quality defense. The only error in the game came after a diving stop was thrown away trying to do a little too much.
“The one thing I was really impressed with our team is that we never lost our composure,” Tulane head coach David Pierce said. But that’s because they are used to tough situations, according to junior Jake Willsey.
“We’re comfortable with our backs against the wall,” Willsey said. “We know what we need to do and we trust our guys, every single one of us from roster [spot] No. 1 to 35. We all know what we’re going to do the job and we trust each other.”
Arizona head coach Jay Johnson felt his team only stayed in the game because of its desire to fight.
“There’s no question how bad our guys want to win. The competitiveness has not been a problem.”
♦ It was a rough day for Arizona preseason All-American Bobby Dalbec — a really rough day. Dalbec notched the platinum sombrero with five strikeouts at the plate and then he also gave up the game-winning home run on the mound.
“In baseball, you have to have a short memory. We’re playing tomorrow and he’ll be back in there,” Johnson said. “Sometimes when you come in with all the accolades, everybody knows who you are and he gets pitched pretty tough. We’ve just got to keep him not trying to do too much.”
Dalbec is now just 2-for-20 at the plate on the season and has struck out a whopping 12 times. Hurting the Wildcats even more was that his strikeouts came in big situations, including with runners on the corners in the sixth inning and with the bases loaded in the seventh inning.
Aggression seems to be one of the issues after Tulane attacked him early in the count with offspeed pitches. Even if they were up in the zone, Dalbec was content to take those pitches and not swing at breaking balls unless there was two strikes.
Johnson has worked with numerous sluggers, so there’s no reason to believe he won’t be able to work his swing magic with Dalbec as well, but the Wildcats need him to be an impact bat in the middle of the lineup.
- ♦ Cody Ramer continues to be a dynamic table setter for Arizona. The Wildcats’ leadoff hitter is batting .450 with an on-base percentage of .542 as he takes over for early round draft pick Kevin Newman. The Wildcats’ staff completely revamped his swing in the fall. Ramer has worked hard to find consistency with his new stroke and it is paying off.
“He’s taken to it,” Johnson said. “You could kind of see it brewing in the fall that good things were coming and he’s certainly continued to build on that. I’ve been impressed with the consistency of at-bats.”
San Diego 17, Nebraska 5
♦ San Diego jumped all over Nebraska starter Colton Howell. After getting leadoff hitter Jeffrey Houghtby to groundout to open the first inning, Howell didn’t get another out. San Diego’s entire lineup reached base in succession and put eight runs on the board, which Nebraska was never able to recover from.
Howell was up in the zone and his stuff was flat. Cornhuskers head coach Darin Erstad said Howell’s velocity was “way down.” He wasn’t getting a great angle on his fastball, leaving pitches thigh high in the hitting zone — something you don’t want to do when the Torero lineup is locked in.
♦ The big blow in the first inning was a three-run homer from Kevin Collard. The freshman went with a pitch and drove it the other way, getting it just over the glove of left fielder Cole Klemke’s leaping attempt to rob him at the wall. Collard was one of four freshmen in the San Diego starting lineup. Rich Hill said he is using this part of the season as a tryout for the players to see who can perform when the lights are on.
Never afraid to tinker with his lineup, Hill has used 14 different players in the starting lineup with six players that have started all five games thus far. Along with four returning veterans have been junior college transfer Daniel Gardner and freshman second baseman Bhret Bewley.
Gardner has the potential to be a leadoff hitter with wheels from the left side while Bewley has impressed Hill with his offense and his defense early in the season.
“We’re learning about guys as we go,” Hill said.
♦ It was good to see Troy Conyers back on the mound and having success after missing the 2015 season with Tommy John surgery and getting hit hard in his first start of the year, at Vanderbilt. Conyers bounced back from the rough outing Week 1 to put up five scoreless frames to earn the win.
“He was sharper. Coming back from that injury, he just needs game experience,” Hill said. “Tonight, I thought he was good. His fastball had a little more zip on it. He looked a little bit more efficient.”
It’s also always good to see Taylor Kaczmarek on the mound after everything he has battled to be back on the diamond. He pitched the final two innings, striking out three and giving up one run.
♦ Nebraska has some legit hitters throughout their lineup with Ryan Boldt at the top, Ben Miller in the middle and Jake Meyers in the bottom half. Boldt shrugged off his slow start opening weekend to record three hits, including his first home run of the season. Miller just seems to hit everything he sees hard, including the batter’s eye on Friday night when he hit a frozen rope to dead center field for a solo homer. And Meyers had a big game with four hits — two doubles — and two runs.
But the Huskers have to get more consistent starting pitching. In their last three games, the Nebraska starters have combined for 2.2 innings pitched and 18 runs allowed.
“We’ve had three starts in a row where we’ve had some issues on the mound,” head coach Darin Erstad said. “We obviously have to get that righted pretty quickly. You expect that to happen with some of your young guys, but not with your senior leader on the mound.”
Nebraska can’t survive with its current team ERA of 8.73 no matter how much damage the lineup can muster. But Erstad is hopeful they can turn things around from the slow 1-3 start.
“We have some different pieces at different positions. There’s probably going to be some growing pains. I wasn’t expecting this many, but we have some tough boys on this team and we’ll bounce back.”
In Their Words
Tulane 2B Jake Willsey talks about his career day in an 11-10 win over Arizona. Willsey hit two home runs, including a solo homer in the eighth inning to go ahead.
Arizona head coach Jay Johnson talks about Arizona’s fight in a back-and-forth game against Tulane and the struggles of preseason All-American Bobby Malbec early in the season.
Tulane head coach David Pierce talks about the battle and resiliency of his Green Wave program as well as the two-home run performance of Jake Willsey and the start of Corey Merrill.
San Diego head coach Rich Hill talks about the relief his offense provided with eight runs in the first inning and how he is mixing and matching a number of new faces during an early season trial and error period. He also talks about the Tony Gwynn Classic coming together and what it means to him..
Nebraska head coach Darin Erstad explains how his team has to flush a loss to San Diego and refocus for the rest of the weekend. Erstad also talks about what being a part of the Tony Gwynn Classic means to him.
San Diego SS Bryson Brigman talks about the Toreros bouncing back from a rough opening weekend with an offensive explosion against Nebraska and his role on the team with so many new faces.