LAFAYETTE — When Louisiana-Lafayette second baseman Stefan Trosclair looks at this weekend’s series against Sun Belt Conference-leading South Alabama, he sees an opportunity.
He sees a Jaguars team that is leading the conference in pitching (3.33 ERA), hitting (.285 batting average) and fielding (.975 fielding percentage) — and, thus, the standings (32-17, 17-7).
He also sees his Ragin’ Cajuns (30-17, 14-9) just a half-game out of second place after a disappointing weekend at Appalachian State. A little basic math reveals the opportunity.
A series win would move the Cajuns within striking distance of the league’s regular-season title. A sweep would vault them ahead of South Alabama with a week to play.
“We’re excited,” Trosclair said. “We control our own destiny, and they’re at the top of the league. We have a chance to make a push toward the top if we get some wins this weekend.”
To realize that opportunity, the Cajuns will need to clear a major hurdle Friday night in the form of senior right-hander Kevin Hill.
The Jaguars ace has torched his way through opposing lineups most of this season. South Alabama is 8-1 in games he starts — the only loss coming in his season debut, when he left after five innings — and he recently carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning against a powerful Georgia State team.
South Alabama coach Mark Calvi is not afraid to lean on him, either. Hill has gone the distance in three of his past four outings, and he is averaging 113.7 pitches per appearance.
“Our saying is that it’s a buffalo out there on the mound,” Trosclair said. “We’re going to go out there and try to take down the buffalo. We’re excited for the challenge. You always want to beat the best.”
But the Cajuns have their own buffalo in the making in freshman left-hander Gunner Leger, who acquitted himself nicely in a similar situation last week.
With Appalachian State ace Taylor Thurber stifling the Cajuns offense for nine innings, Leger nearly matched him with his best performance of the year. He kept the Cajuns in it, allowing just one earned run in 7.2 innings, walking none and striking out six.
“I think it was good that he pitched in that last weekend, because it will be a pretty similar situation,” said coach Tony Robichaux, who added that it will help that his team is at home this time. “I do believe being in it helps you get in it again.”
Since moving to the Friday night role in the rotation, Leger has posted a 2.91 ERA, and he has gotten stronger as he has grown more accustomed to pitching against the other team’s top pitcher.
In his past two starts, spanning 14.2 innings, Leger has not walked a batter and struck out 12 while allowing just one earned run.
He’ll have to be on his game against the Jaguars. South Alabama doesn’t hit for much power — it’s last in the league in home runs and doubles — but it leads the league in batting average, walks and stolen bases, and only the Cajuns have scored more runs.
Robichaux told Leger when he first earned the Friday night role that, going against the other team’s top arm, it’s imperative he limits the other team’s chances.
“Usually it’s their best guy, and he’s not going to be giving up (six-run innings),” Leger said. “Whoever it is on the mound has to limit what the other team does just to give the team a chance.”
Conversely, Robichaux knows the windows likely won’t be open long against Hill in the series opener, and his team is going to have to make its opportunities count.
“We’re going to have to try to be real good at working counts, try not to let him have six- and eight-pitch innings,” Robichaux said. “Just really try to be opportunistic. If we get the chance to have that guy at second base, then we need that timely hit. If we get that guy around to third base with one out, we can’t leave him stranded.”
Robichaux said it’s important for his team to get to Hill early so he can’t settle into a groove. But the Cajuns also don’t want to be down late, because the Jaguars have some weapons if Hill can’t go the distance.
Senior right-hander Ben Taylor has been nearly unhittable closing games out of the bullpen. He has struck out 54 hitters in 30 innings and has allowed only two runs to cross the plate.
South Alabama also frequently turns to junior righty Cody Van Aken, who leads the team with 25 appearances and has struck out 42 in 48.2 innings while picking up four saves.