UL-Lafayette left-hander Gunner Leger delivers a pitch against South Alabama during a game at Stanky Field in Mobile, Ala., last season.

Advocate file photo by BRAD KEMP

The worst-kept secret on UL-Lafayette’s baseball team became public knowledge Monday, and it's a serious blow to the Ragin’ Cajuns’ hopes for the upcoming season.

Senior left-hander Gunner Leger, the reigning Sun Belt Conference Pitcher of the Year, a returning second-team All-American and a semifinalist for last year’s Golden Spikes Award, will redshirt this spring after having two significant surgeries since the end of his stellar 2017 junior season.

Leger, though, specifically said he plans to return to the Cajuns and play in the 2019 season before entertaining professional offers.

“I’ve never been hurt or missed anything, so it’s tough right now not being able to do what everybody else is doing,” Leger said Monday. “When you’re in the fall, you’re thinking this sucks and you really don’t want to go run a mile, but then when you can’t do it, you don’t feel very good about yourself.

“My sights are set on next season. It’s been a slow process and it’ll continue to be a slow process, but at least I have something to work toward at this point.”

Leger had a partial ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tear in his throwing arm. He did not have to undergo the full Tommy John procedure because of a new technique involving collagen filaments that reinforce the UCL and promote healing. That surgery was done July 13 by Dr. Jeffrey Dugas, who worked under internationally known orthopedic surgeon and Louisiana native Dr. James Andrews.

A potentially more serious problem to Leger’s physical health, and not just his pitching ability, was a cyst in his left femur that had been an issue since his days at Barbe High School in Lake Charles. Leger and his family chose surgery to correct that issue in late October, since he was already slated for six to eight months of rehab from the elbow surgery.

“When we found it first when I was young in high school, the scare is cancer,” he said. “Anybody mentions a tumor in the bone, you think cancer.”

The cyst wound up being benign, but a biopsy before the October surgery showed it had doubled in size and was almost 12 inches long, running from his hip almost to his left knee. A metal rod was inserted into the bone when the cyst was removed.

“That x-ray and that MRI, it was a disturbing image,” Leger said. “It’s like a tennis ball inside a PVC pipe, and it slowly eats away at the inside of the bone.”

Leger said the combination of the two procedures made the redshirt year an obvious choice. The Ragin’ Cajuns season begins Feb. 16 with a three-game series at Texas.

“Even if I didn’t have (the leg surgery), instead of being maybe healthy for the conference tournament, it would still have been late in the season,” he said. “We’re talking maybe 30 innings this year at the most, so I didn’t feel like it was worth it.”

Leger said he started having arm issues during the latter half of 2017, even though he finished the year with a stellar 10-2 record and ranked in the nation’s top 20 with a 1.97 ERA in more than 90 innings pitched.

“I started having tightness in my forearm, but what was tough for me was that I couldn’t compare it to anything and I could still control the ball,” he said. “My (velocity) was down maybe a mile or two, but it was still pretty good; I could make all my pitches, and I was getting outs. It was tough in my head to realize something could really be wrong when I was pitching the best in my career for the first half of the season.

“I had no pain, but it got progressively worse and at the conference tournament it was obviously pretty bad. I was throwing around 80 at that point.”

Leger said he will spend the 2018 season completing rehab and helping Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux in any way he can. He began throwing light toss for the first time last week but is still not cleared to run from the leg surgery.

“I’ll be able to help the young guys however I can,” he said. “Literally every day I ask coach Robe what he needs me to do today. When spring started I walked in his office, and I said, 'I don’t know what to do with myself. I need you to tell me what you want me to do this year, help with practice.' Whatever he needs me to do, I’ll do.”