The last time Keagan Gillies '16 pitched for Tulane, it was another rough performance during a wretched year. He was pulled last May after giving up a bases-clearing double that created a 6-1 deficit against Cincinnati in the fourth inning for the Green Wave in the American Athletic Conference baseball tournament.
The next time he takes the mound could be for the first pitch on opening night next Friday against Florida Gulf Coast.
Gillies, a senior from Brother Martin, transformed himself in the offseason for one final push as Tulane (32-26 in 2019) tries to reach its first regional in coach Travis Jewett’s four-year tenure. Although Jewett hedged on a specific slot for the 6-foot-8 right-hander on Media Day, he did not rule out Fridays in what is shaping up as a four-way battle for the three weekend starting spots.
Gillies was dominant in fall practice against a good-hitting lineup after skipping summer ball to work on his flaws.
“He’s Nolan Ryan-ish,” Jewett said. “We don’t hit him. He throws strikes. He’s aggressive.”
He was none of those things as a junior, following a promising sophomore season (6-6; team-best 3.36 ERA and team-high 80 1/3 innings) with a fat 7.92 ERA and a 2-5 record. While many of his pitching mates could not find the strike zone, he found far too many bats, allowing 86 hits in 63 2/3 innings.
Although he held on to the Saturday starting slot he earned in 2018, he lasted five innings only five times in 15 appearances and permitted four or more runs on 11 occasions. His year ended with that loss to Cincinnati in an AAC winner’s bracket game (the Bearcats won the tournament), with Jewett pointedly contrasting his mindset and lack of intensity to ace Kaleb Roper’s bulldog mentality in a complete-game victory against Central Florida two days earlier.
“What he said was very much true,” Gillies said. “I let my team down, and it motivated me coming into this year because I never wanted to feel like that again. Last year was a huge disappointment for me, but at the end it was a do-or-die situation. I had a lot of things I needed to fix, so this summer I really focused on my mechanics.”
Specifically, he is getting more rise on his fastball, complementing the 12 to 6 curveball that is his top pitch. With the help of second-year pitching coach Daniel Latham, he also added cutting action to his slider, differentiating it from his loopy curveball.
“Keagan has made tremendous strides,” said fellow senior Grant Mathews, one of three returning Wave players D1 Baseball.com lists among the top 150 hitters in college baseball (sophomore Hudson Haskin is No. 14; Mathews is No. 99 and junior Frankie Niemann is No. 140). “He’s pumping the ball to the plate, flipping over his curveball and commanding all of his pitches. He’s getting up there with the mindset there’s no way you’re getting on base.”
Gillies’ competition consists of three junior college imports — Jack Aldrich, Donovan Benoit and Braden Olthoff. The odd man out in the weekend rotation will become the closer because Jewett considers those guys clearly his four best pitchers at this point.
But the prize role is Friday starter.
“I’ve been dreaming about that for a very long time now,” Gillies said. “I’ve been a Tulane baseball fan since I was a kid, so it would mean a lot to me. I think I’ve put in the work, and it would be a credit to achieve.”
The thought has been germinating for more than a decade.
Gillies said he became hooked on Tulane baseball when he was about 10 after his dad brought him to a game and bought him a Wave jersey. They rented a suite at Turchin Stadium and went to every weekend series as well as most midweek games. At the end of Sunday games he ran around the bases with other kids as part of the Tulane custom. He attended all of the baseball camps.
When the Wave offered him a scholarship under former coach David Pierce, he jumped at it.
“It was an easy decision,” he said. “This was where I wanted to come all along.”
Getting to his first regional in his final year would complete the dream. If Gillies is as improved as advertised and the newcomers are solid on the mound — a big task considering recent history — Tulane returns enough good hitters to do it.
The Wave, which finished third in the AAC last year, averaged 7.7 runs but was saddled with a 5.74 ERA.
“It should not be a surprise if we make a regional this year,” Gillies said. “We definitely have the position players and the pitching to get there. You can’t really take a batter off. It’s one after the other.”