Right fielder Ethan Groff was in Tulane’s dugout before practice Thursday, smiling and encouraging his teammates while wearing a brace on his left hand.
The role of motivator is the only one left for him after he suffered a season-ending thumb injury in the ninth inning last Saturday at Central Florida.
The result is Tulane will have to make a push at the end of the season without him or closer Zach DeVito, who departed in the same inning of the same game with an elbow injury.
With freshman Teo Banks replacing Groff and freshman Chandler Welch closing in DeVito’s place, Tulane beat UNO 6-5 on Tuesday to clinch the Pelican Cup. The Green Wave started a three-game series at home against Cincinnati on Friday night.
“It (not having Groff and DeVito) stinks for sure, and I feel for those guys because I know what it’s like,” said sophomore catcher Bennett Lee, who batted a school-record .440 last season but missed the last nine games with a hand injury. “We have to get everyone contributing now, and we’re going to need that effort every night.”
Groff, a fourth-year junior batting an AAC-best .404 this season, was the front-runner for conference player of the year. DeVito, with a fastball that touched 95 miles per hour, shared the American Athletic Conference lead with nine saves.
The duo’s absence is serving as inspiration for a team that still harbors hope of winning the AAC championship but needs to be nearly perfect in the final three weeks of the regular season to have a shot at making up a two-game deficit to East Carolina.
“I want to be there for Groff and do my best for him because he’s been here for a long time and he knows how it feels to have the season go the way you want,” said freshman Gavin Schulz, who entered the lineup as the starting shortstop Tuesday after playing sparingly for most of the year. “Down the stretch these last few games I just want to play for him and DeVito.”
Welch, who earned his first save Tuesday, was equally as emotional.
“Honestly I tear up when I think about Groff and DeVito being out for the year,” he said. “It sucks because they’re both so important, not just on the field in how talented they are, but they are such a big part in the dugout and during practice. They are great guys and great leaders.
“The one thing I know about them is they are going to be awesome teammates, and they are going to make sure everybody’s fired up and ready for every game. They tell us we’re here to win it all, so that’s what we’re going to do. “
Although there is no chance of a miracle cure this season, the prognosis for Groff and DeVito is optimistic for down the road. Tulane coach Travis Jewett said Groff will likely be healthy enough to play in a couple of months, either in professional ball if he gets drafted or in a summer league if he elects to stay in college.
His final chapter at Tulane may not have been written yet.
“He’s got another year (of eligibility), for sure,” Jewett said. “If somebody can give him a pro job, that would be the one, and if that’s a no, he’s going to have to sit down and say, ‘Do I want to do this again after graduating?’ “
DeVito, a sophomore, appears likely to avoid Tommy John surgery.
“From all indications, I think you’re going to be looking at more of a shortened, condensed recovery than maybe like 12 months,” Jewett said. “We should know more about that in the next week or so.”