HOOVER, Ala. — Last season, the Alabama Crimson Tide came to Acadiana and provided the first major weekend test for Louisiana-Lafayette’s baseball team.
The Ragin’ Cajuns passed that exam, shutting the Tide out twice and taking the weekend series during a streak that eventually reached 24 wins in 25 games. Coach Tony Robichaux said the Alabama series was a catalyst for last year’s hugely successful season.
This weekend, Robichaux is looking for another kind of test, and this time it’s on foreign soil.
“Our biggest goal is to get down there, get our guys in a tough setting and try to do everything we can to handle that setting,” Robichaux said as the Cajuns (4-4) prepared for Friday’s series opener, which has moved up to 3 p.m. because of frigid conditions. “We know that they (Alabama) play the game the right way, and you’re going to have to play nine innings.”
The Cajuns had to play a lot more than that Tuesday in their last outing — 17 innings, to be exact, in a disappointing 5-4 home loss to McNeese State. They’ll hope for improvement from that performance in a series that also includes a 2 p.m. Saturday outing and a 1 p.m. Sunday finale at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
The Tide (6-2) is playing most of its “home” games at Hoover Met this season, with its Sewell-Thomas Stadium in Tuscaloosa undergoing a $42 million renovation. In fact, both teams will house at the same location over the weekend, with the Tide joining UL-Lafayette at the Hyatt Regency-Wynfrey Hotel on Friday and Saturday nights after the 60-mile journey from Tuscaloosa.
“We knew travel was going to be a part of the year,” said Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard, a graduate of UL-Lafayette and a former Cajuns assistant coach. “But it’s a great opportunity for us to play in a beautiful ballpark. It makes it well worth the travel that we have in front of us.”
Gaspard’s squad is hitting .321 and has a solid 2.83 ERA as a team and has won all five outings at Hoover Met — including a doubleheader sweep of Savannah State on Tuesday. The Tide’s only losses came in losing a 2-1 series at Houston last weekend.
Despite the early season Hoover success, Gaspard obviously wishes he was already playing in his team’s new facility. Actually, so does Robichaux, who carries his 999 career wins into the weekend series and will have his second chance at his 1,000th victory Friday.
“I really wish we were at their place, where probably they could put more pressure on us,” he said. “I’m kind of crazy on the other side of it, but I want it to be as vicious as it can be. I’d love to be in their ballpark where they’re right on top of us with full bleachers so we can learn how to handle that.”
In contrast to last year’s veteran squad, the Cajuns will take a youthful group to battle the Tide. But the youngest part of that team — the pitching staff — has more than carried its weight since the opening road series at Texas-San Antonio. Over the last five games, UL-Lafayette’s pitching staff has a 1.87 ERA, and the bullpen has allowed only two earned runs.
Of the 13 pitchers that have seen action, eight of them made their collegiate debut, including five freshmen. Four of the freshmen threw in Tuesday’s marathon, combining to give up one earned run in 12 innings.
“If you’re going to look at some silver linings, that’s one of them,” Robichaux said of Tuesday’s loss. “We made some big pitches at critical times. We brought freshmen back out for their second time ... their first time (at UTSA) was not good for many because they were freshmen, but this time they came back out and attacked the strike zone, and did some good things.”
One of his freshman hurlers, right-hander Evan Guillory (1-0, 2.80) is slotted for the Friday afternoon start against Alabama senior left-hander and Zachary native Taylor Guilbeau (1-1, 2.25). Senior right-hander Greg Milhorn (0-0, 2.70) will go for the Cajuns on Saturday against Bama junior right-hander Will Carter (1-0, 2.61), while the Tide sends sophomore right-hander Geoffrey Bramblett (2-0, 2.19) against what Robichaux expects to be a Cajun delegation.
“When we get to Sunday we’ll put somebody out as a starter and probably one, one, one it all the way through,” he said. “We need to see the rest of those guys. I want to throw these other guys to where we can try to build a bit wider of an arsenal and know what we have going into the first conference weekend.”
Because of the expanded Sun Belt Conference schedule, that first weekend is only one week away, with UL-Lafayette hosting Troy in its league-opening series. Robichaux is hoping the Alabama series will help shake some kinks from a squad that’s hitting only .214 in its last four games after collecting double-figure hits in each of its first four.
“We have to get better at being one-through-nine and doing the little things,” Robichaux said. “We’ve got to get our bunts down, we’ve got to handle certain situations that we didn’t handle (Tuesday). That backfired on us and cost us the game.”