LAFAYETTE — The time between now and Friday can’t pass fast enough for Michael Strentz.
“I’ve been waiting for Friday since last year at LSU,” Louisiana-Lafayette’s junior catcher said of this week’s season opener. The Ragin’ Cajuns host Eastern Illinois in a four-game series that begins at 6 p.m. Friday at Moore Field.
Strentz showed his readiness for the Cajuns’ 2014 season Sunday during the team’s annual Fan Day, blasting an impressive 11 home runs in a 10-out final round to win the team’s home run derby.
The approximately 700 fans on hand were appreciative of the power display, something that Cajuns followers came to expect in 2013. Their team led Division I in homers (74) and total bases on the way to a 43-20 record and a spot in the final of the NCAA tournament’s Baton Rouge Regional.
“The great thing is that today was truly for the fans,” coach Tony Robichaux said. “We say that a lot, but today was for them to have fun. We have a great fan base, and it means a lot to our players. They want to play in front of people.”
Sunday’s crowd was more than the Cajuns played before in 10 of their 15 Sun Belt road games last season. That total figures to increase that four- or five-fold for Friday’s opener.
“It’s awesome when they’re here behind us,” said Strentz, who hit .311 with seven homers last year. “It’s great to come out here. But we know we still have to play ... even if there’s nobody here, we still have to play with a lot of intensity.”
Strentz showed that intensity in the home run derby. He had four homers in the first round, while fellow returnee Seth Harrison and newcomer Greg Davis each had three. That trio advanced to the final round, where Strentz put on his power show.
Strentz also had a hit in the abbreviated three-inning intrasquad game that wrapped up the afternoon’s activities. His team, made up primarily of the returning starters, took a 2-0 win, with Harrison lacing a first-inning leadoff home run and Jace Conrad scoring an unearned run on Chase Compton’s ground ball in the third inning.
Returning closer Matt Hicks and newcomer freshmen Riley Cooper and Reagan Bazar combined to no-hit the opposition for the winning squad; Robichaux used six of his anticipated relievers one inning each.
“We’ve been grinding on these guys since August, and there hasn’t been anyone in the stands,” Robichaux said. “This was the first time that our new guys got out here with people here. We use that in the recruiting process — that we’re in the top 30 in attendance.”
The squad had an hourlong autograph session before the home run derby. They were joined by former Cajun standout Jonathan Lucroy, now the starting catcher for the Milwaukee Brewers.
“There are so many places that don’t have this kind of support,” said Lucroy, who hit .280 with 18 homers and a Brewers-leading 82 RBIs last year. “You do really notice it as a player. When we go to Cincinnati or Atlanta and there’s maybe 10,000 there, it’s hard to get excited. Here, there’s always been really good support, and the fans have always been a big part of it.”