HOUSTON — Louisiana-Lafayette’s freshman starting corps got a lot of notoriety during the regular season and again when the Ragin’ Cajuns won the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
Turns out, there was a freshman in the opposing dugout Sunday who was pretty good.
In fact, it took everything the Cajuns had — including another improbable ninth-inning rally — to finally best Houston left-hander Seth Romero and the Cougars 2-1 in Sunday’s winners’ bracket final at the NCAA tournament’s Houston regional.
Romero and UL-Lafayette freshman Gunner Leger had locked up in a pitching duel, and Romero was on his way to winning that battle when he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning and a 1-0 lead into the ninth.
“The only way to beat a guy like that is to match him and wait him out,” Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux said. “We talked about it in the cages; there’s only one way to take a buffalo down: You’ve got to surround him.”
That’s what the Cajuns (41-21) did, pushing across two unearned runs in the ninth without the ball leaving the infield. Those runs scored on Kyle Clement’s squeeze bunt and when reliever Aaron Fletcher hit Tyler Girouard with a bases-loaded pitch.
It wasn’t quite the five-run ninth-inning rally that the Cajuns had in Friday’s 7-6 win over Rice, but it was just as stunning after the way Romero kept them in check.
Romero, who took a 1.66 ERA into last week’s American Athletic Conference tournament and a 2.15 mark into Sunday’s game, faced the minimum through 7.2 innings. A fifth-inning walk to Girouard was the only base-runner he had allowed to that point, and even after Evan Powell’s two-out single through the left side broke up the no-hitter in the eighth, Romero still went into the ninth with a one-hit shutout.
“You tip your hat to Seth,” Houston coach Todd Whitting said. “Sometimes it’s a cruel game.”
Romero was pulled when he walked leadoff hitter Dylan Butler in the ninth after a 113-pitch effort; Fletcher (2-1) came on in relief.
“That guy, as a freshman, he’s something else, man,” Robichaux said of Romero. “But it seems like every time, when you face a guy as good as he is, when they make a change, it just looks better.”
Robichaux was quick to point out that his team’s third straight final-inning victory wouldn’t have happened had Leger and senior Greg Milhorn not matched Romero nearly pitch for pitch.
Leger, who threw the first nine innings and left a 1-1 game last Sunday in the Sun Belt tournament final against South Alabama, scattered five hits through six innings. He fanned four and didn’t walk a batter, and after Chris Iriart’s first-inning home run, he worked out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the second.
Leger, part of the Cajuns’ three-freshman weekend rotation over the past two months, proceeded to retire 11 in a row before giving up two hits in the sixth. A strikeout and a popup ended that inning before he turned it over to Milhorn, who threw four scoreless innings last Sunday in the Cajuns’ 5-1, 12-inning victory. This time, Milhorn retired the first four he faced, and then the final five after two Cougars one-out hits in the eighth.
“There’s a lotta destiny out there,” Robichaux said when asked about comparing Sunday’s win to the previous weekend. “Those two guys gave us the best chance to win today.”
Robichaux and his coaching staff didn’t decide on going with Leger until Sunday morning, after his nine-inning outing and two lengthy appearances in the Sun Belt tournament had pushed him back from his regular opening-night assignment.
“We worked him hard in the conference tournament,” Robichaux said, “but he was going to pitch today if we had wound up playing twice. He did a great job for us. ... To give up one run to these guys, that shows how he’s grown up and matured.
“I wrestled with it. Our coaches thought he’d be the best matchup against them; my question was how he would be. He’s got a great future and we’re not going to risk that, but we voted it out on the bus (among the coaches) and it was 4-0.”
Democracy, in this case, worked well for Leger, who got a ground-ball out at the plate and a fly ball to work out of the bases-loaded jam in the second.
“You come in every game trying to be stingy,” Leger said. “(Romero) is impressive, man, but what he was doing didn’t change what I was trying to do.
“I was a little tired still, but I’m glad Coach gave me the ball. I was excited. ... You want the ball in a big game.”