For two decades, Louisiana-Lafayette baseball coach Tony Robichaux has been a disciple of pitching and defense, and in all that time he may not have had a better middle infield combination than Jace Conrad and Blake Trahan.
Conrad has three errors in 65 games at second base, two of them on throwing errors from well into right field, and that helped him take Player of the Year honors in the Sun Belt Conference. Trahan’s range at shortstop has drawn enough raves to get him on this summer’s national Team USA squad, and he has only 10 errors for the season.
But with those two putting up stunning hitting numbers, especially in the past couple of weeks, Robichaux may have to revise that mantra slightly.
The hot bats of the two juniors are a big reason the Ragin’ Cajuns will make history this weekend, when they serve as hosts for an NCAA tournament super regional for the first time and have only one hurdle between themselves and the College World Series.
But it’s a big hurdle.
Ole Miss, also one of last week’s 16 national hosts for the regional round, comes to M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field for a best-of-three series that will send whichever teams wins on an historic Omaha trip. The Rebels (44-18) haven’t been to college baseball’s mecca since 1972; the top-ranked Cajuns (57-8) made their only trip to Omaha trip in 2000.
“That’s our goal, and that’s our only goal,” said Conrad, the Most Outstanding Player in last week’s regional after leading UL-Lafayette to four straight wins following a shocking 1-0 opening loss to Jackson State. “This weekend is what we’ve been working to get to since we started last fall.”
Conrad and Trahan have more than done their share. Conrad, a product of Lafayette High, takes a .377 batting average and a team-high 65 runs batted in into Saturday’s 7 p.m. super regional opener (ESPN2). Kinder product Trahan is hitting .357 this season.
If possible, though, the two have peaked even more since the end of the regular season. In nine postseason games in the Sun Belt tournament and the NCAA regional, Trahan is hitting .586 (17-of-29) with five extra-base hits and the game-winning home run in the Sun Belt tourney final against Texas-Arlington. Conrad has a .432 average (16-of-37) with two homers and a team-leading 12 RBIs.
Add left fielder Caleb Adams, with team-high .387 batting and .689 slugging marks for the season and a .464 batting average in postseason play, and UL-Lafayette has a top half of its lineup that will challenge any pitching staff. The Cajuns are hitting .318 as a team, second nationally, and lead the country in slugging going into the super regional.
“Obviously they have a great offense that does it in a lot of different ways, from power to speed to sac bunts,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “But they have other parts of their game ... they defend, fielding 978 as a team and they got three aces on the mound. It’s a big challenge playing them, and playing them down there.”
“Down there” is Moore Field, which at 3,755 capacity doesn’t hold as many as many places the Rebels visit in their Southeastern Conference travels. The facility was solid out for the super regional before tickets even went on sale to the general public, and many fans will watch the game outside the “Tigue” on large video screens set up in tailgating areas.
“The atmosphere we had this past weekend was absolutely electric,” Adams said of the regional, which ranked fifth nationally in attendance but trailed Ole Miss’ three-game sweep at its home park, which led the country. “They may play in front of eight, ten thousand every game in the SEC, but none of them were as loud or as into it as our guys this past weekend.”
The first task for Ole Miss is to quiet that crowd, and the Rebels are capable of that at the plate and on the mound. Ole Miss led the SEC in hitting (.304), and senor catcher Will Allen was the conference’s batting champion at .351. The Rebels have three other regulars hitting .329 or better in center fielder Auston Bousfield (.349), third baseman Austin Anderson (.332) and outfielder/DH J.B. Woodman (.329), while first baseman Sikes Orvis ranked second in the SEC in homers (13).
Ole Miss’ pitching numbers are even more impressive with nine regular hurlers sporting ERAs under 3.00. Top two starters Chris Ellis and Christian Trent, both on the watch list for national Pitcher of the Year, have combined for a 19-1 record and a 2.26 ERA. Ellis figures to start in Saturday’s opener, and Trent is scheduled for Sunday’s 8 p.m. second game, with the if-necessary third game set for 6 p.m. Monday.
“This is going to be one of the best total teams we’ve played all year,” Robichaux said.
“They have SEC arms, and we’re going to see a better top-to-bottom lineup than we’ve seen the last few weeks.”
The Cajuns will go with their normal weekend rotation for the super regional, which means junior right-handers Austin Robichaux and Carson Baranik will go the first two games and senior lefty Cody Boutte likely will throw in the possible Monday game.
“I don’t think we’re going to stray from what we’ve done all year,” Robichaux said. “We’ve been Austin out of the gate and he’s set a good tone for us. Baranik has been good behind him, and Boutte has been exceptional behind him. Our bullpen is solidified. I like the way we’ve been pitching, and we’ll have to pitch good because they’re really a good-hitting ballclub.”