LAFAYETTE — Louisiana-Lafayette’s baseball team doesn’t care that its opening-weekend opponent isn’t highly regarded, even though Eastern Illinois will have one of the most experienced pitching staffs the Ragin’ Cajuns will face all season.
The Cajuns are just ready to play somebody, anybody, and coach Tony Robichaux said he’s glad the Panthers are at “Tigue” Moore Field for a four-game series that begins at 6 p.m. Friday.
“I like a Northern team that wants to come down and play four,” Robichaux said. “It gives us an opportunity to get a lot of guys in and playing. A lot of guys that sign with us, they commit so early that they may have never seen us play. This gives them a chance to see what’s going on out here.”
The series includes a Saturday noon doubleheader and a 1 p.m. Sunday single game, giving UL-Lafayette its first outing since its season ended in the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional in June. Friday’s lineup will look similar to the one that ended the year, with each of the nine projected in that lineup starting at least 37 games last year, and junior right-hander Austin Robichaux (9-2, 3.05 in 2013) getting the start.
“We’ve been grinding on these guys all fall, and we had a good return from guys coming back from the Christmas break,” Tony Robichaux said. “We’ll see where we are. We’re tired of playing against ourselves. It’s time to get an opponent out there and get after it.”
Eastern Illinois finished 22-27 last season and went 11-17 in the Ohio Valley Conference, but the Panthers had two of their top pitchers sidelined the entire 2013 season with injuries. Starters Troy Barton (9-5, 3.20 in 2012) and Christian Slazinik (6-6, 4.50 in 2012) will get starting nods this weekend, after Barton held opponents to a .239 batting average in 17 appearances and 13 starts two seasons ago.
The Panthers also have all four of their starting pitchers back from last season, with right-handers Jake Johansmeier (3-4, 3.70) and Matt Borens (4-4, 4.30) slated for the first two games and Slazinik and Barton going in Games 3 and 4 for longtime EIU coach Jim Schmitz.
“Last year was disappointing with our top two guys going out at the start,” Schmitz said. “Our pitching staff depth gives us a lot of excitement and confidence going in. But it’s going to be an unbelievable challenge to start the year as Louisiana-Lafayette really knows how to score runs.
“Playing a great offensive team will let us know where we are at when we’re headed home on the bus Sunday night.”
The Cajuns will counter with right-handed junior college newcomers Carson Baranik and Greg Milhorn in the Saturday twin bill, and senior returning southpaw starter Cody Boutte (8-4, 5.30) on Sunday.
They and their teammates will carry high expectations into the weekend, with UL-Lafayette ranked in every preseason poll — as high as 14th by Baseball America — and an overwhelming pick to win the Sun Belt Conference.
“We’ve talked about throttling back and not being out of control,” Robichaux said of the opening weekend. “It’s our first time seeing and opponent and being on the field since a very tough fall, but we’re old enough to handle that. If we were a young team that might be something to be concerned about, but our Friday night starter and our other guys bring a lot of experience.
“Our chemistry has been really good. We separated the locker room (returnees and newcomers) to try to weather the new guys. They got beat up a little, but as the fall wore on they started to fight back and that was good to see.”
The Cajuns don’t open league play for a month, but Robichaux said this weekend is just as important when it comes to postseason hopes.
“The biggest challenge is every game’s an RPI game,” he said after the Cajuns ranked 23rd and the Sun Belt ranked fifth among conferences in the RPI last year. “Our approach is that every game is a conference game because it’s an RPI game.”