SAN MARCOS, Texas — So this is what happens when an avalanche starts, then suddenly reverses direction and goes back the way it came with even greater force.
The Louisiana-Lafayette baseball team found itself facing a six-run deficit after the first inning Saturday at Bobcat Ballpark, but it won the final eight innings by a 13-run margin, beating Arkansas State 17-10 for its ninth consecutive victory to advance to the Sun Belt Conference tournament championship game.
The top-seeded Cajuns (40-19) will start sophomore right-hander Wyatt Marks (4-6, 4.70 ERA) in the championship game against No. 6 seed Georgia Southern at 1 p.m. Sunday. The Eagles will counter with their ace, left-hander Evan Challenger (7-4, 3.02).
Things could not have started worse for the Cajuns on Saturday. Pitcher Evan Guillory was pulled after facing just five batters, all of whom reached base.
“We knew they (Arkansas State) had no backup plan,” coach Tony Robichaux said. “They knew they weren’t going to be in a regional unless they’d win this game, so they came out swinging.”
Ty White led off the first for Arkansas State (29-29) with a single past a diving Stefan Trosclair, and he was chased home by a triple to deep center by Joe Schrimpf.
Guillory hit Garrett Rucker on a 1-2 pitch to bring up Tanner Ring, who pulled a double just inside the bag at third base to score another run. Robichaux had seen enough after Matt Burgess smashed a two-run single to center; and he pulled Guillory in favor of Will Bacon with his team trailing 4-0.
The Red Wolves’ onslaught wasn’t finished as Bacon sandwiched a single between a pair of outs to bring up No. 9 hitter Tony Ortiz, but he grooved his first pitch and Ortiz took him to deep center for a two-run double.
It was a brilliant beginning for the Red Wolves. The only problem was they left the Cajuns a lot of time to work with.
“When they went up 6-0 in the first inning, we went to the pitching change and the outfielders got together and I said, ‘At least this happened in the first inning,’ ” Kyle Clement said.
The Cajuns simply wanted to chip away at the lead.
“We weren’t going to try to get it all back in one inning,” senior catcher Nick Thurman said.
But they almost did. Brenn Conrad got things started with a one-out RBI single in the top half of the third for the Cajuns’ first run of the day. After starting pitcher Bo Ritter fell behind 2-0 to Kennon Fontenot, Arkansas State went to right-hander Tyler Zuber in relief.
Zuber walked Fontenot to bring Thurman to the plate with the bases loaded, and he delivered a bases-clearing double off the wall in left-center. Alex Pinero followed with a single to chase Thurman home and cap a five-run inning.
The Red Wolves answered with a run off Bacon in the bottom of the third, but the Cajuns went right back to work.
Clement led off the fourth with a double off left-hander Coulton Lee, then Lee threw eight straight balls to walk the next two batters and re-load the bases.
A sacrifice fly and an error on shortstop Ring tied the score at 7 and brought Thurman to the plate with two outs and runners at second and third. His ground ball to the right side found a hole, scoring two more to give the Cajuns a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Thurman looked gassed after catching a three-hour game on a hot and stuffy day, but he finished 3-for-5 with five RBIs.
He wasn’t the only one to enjoy a huge day at the plate. Clement finished a home run shy of the cycle, and Pinero went 3-for-4 with four RBIs. Six Cajuns finished with at least two hits, and four of those players also drew at least two walks.
After taking the lead in the fourth, the Cajuns added four runs in the fifth and two in both the seventh and ninth.
But the Red Wolves didn’t wilt. They continued to put pressure on the Cajuns relief corps, adding two runs in the fifth off Jevin Huval and another in the sixth off Eric Carter.
They brought the tying run to the plate against Carter in the sixth, but the senior right-hander got an inning-ending ground ball to leave the bases loaded, and he was lights out from there.
Carter retired the final 10 batters he faced, and he got five of the last six outs via strikeout. In two tournament games against the Red Wolves, both in relief, Carter struck out 14 in 7.2 innings.
“He’s been so good against everybody, but really good against them,” Robichaux said. “Once we felt we righted the ship and got Eric back in, we felt so much better.”