Johnson: Cajuns find the good by embracing the bad _lowres

Louisisna-Lafayette batter Stefan Trosclair (23) is mobbed by team mates after he hit a grand slam during the 2015 Sun Belt Baseball Tournament Championship game at Riddle-Pace Field Saturday May 24, 2015 , in Troy, AL. UL defeated South Alabama 5-1 to claim the title. Brad Kemp/RaginCajuns.com

LAFAYETTE — As the University of Louisiana at Lafayette baseball team smashed its way through the Sun Belt Conference tournament into the Houston regional, it was unsurprising that Kyle Clement and Stefan Trosclair led the way.

The pair went 21-for-46 in the tournament with 16 RBIs and nine extra-base hits. Trosclair delivered a magic moment with a grand slam to clinch the title in the 12th inning of the championship game and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.

That performance was only unsurprising by their second-half standards, though. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that the two were simply complementary pieces rather than focal points.

In the Cajuns’ first 28 games, marking the halfway point of the regular season, they weren’t even considered everyday players. Trosclair was sent to the bench to recharge for two weeks after a 3-for-23 stretch at the plate dropped his batting average to .256. Clement, meanwhile, had only 11 starts and two RBIs through the halfway point.

But since then, Clement and Trosclair have been the rock to which the Cajuns’ potent offense has been anchored.

Clement forced his way into the lineup with his production. He’s started 30 of the Cajuns past 32 games, hitting .407 with eight homers and 27 RBIs in that span, including one memorable performance when he became the first Cajun to hit for the cycle in 25 years.

“In the beginning of the year, it wasn’t set in stone that I was going to be in the lineup every day, so I think I was applying too much pressure to myself thinking, ‘If I come in right here, I have to get a hit,’” Clement said.

“Those thoughts are completely out of my mind. I’m just trying to relax and have fun.”

Trosclair has been even more impressive, belting 13 home runs in the past 32 games while maintaining a .369 batting average. His 13 second-half homers alone would’ve put him among the nation’s leaders over the course of a full season.

“I thought when we got Trosclair on the field, by the time we could get him on the field midseason, I think he’s the difference maker,” coach Tony Robichaux said. “He’s the guy that really helped us get going. It’s not ironic that he got the big grand slam when we needed a big lick to win the ballgame.

With their bats providing the punch that was absent early in the season, the Cajuns offense soared.

The Cajuns went 24-8 down the stretch, including a 5-1 performance in the conference tournament, as the offense scored 6.5 runs per game, nearly a full run improvement over the first half of the regular season (5.6).

“It’s made us more physical,” Robichaux said. “It made a coach start trying to work around somebody.”

But that’s been the problem for opposing teams. With two of the hottest bats in the country over the last half of the season operating next to each other in the Cajuns’ lineup, teams have been forced to pick their poison, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Take Trosclair’s grand slam in last weekend’s championship game. There were two outs and runners on second and third when Clement came to the plate. The nearly 30-foot-high right-field wall at Riddle-Pace field was looming with the left-handed Clement striding into the batter’s box.

A ball hit off that wall, which Clement had done multiple times in the tournament, would’ve surely scored two. As dangerous as Trosclair had been, South Alabama coach Mark Calvi decided to roll with the odds and intentionally walk Clement to set up a right-hander on right-hander situation in which the Jaguars could get an out at any base.

“I knew it was a mistake,” Clement said. “I wasn’t even upset about it. … I figured they would go to Trosclair. But you can’t really pitch around me to go to him.”

The Jaguars did, and Trosclair made them pay by launching a ball over that right-field wall.

The emergence of Clement and Trosclair and the maturation of a young pitching staff are perhaps the biggest reasons the Cajuns find themselves in this week’s Houston regional. If they’re able to keep their bats going against what promises to be top-notch pitching, who knows? Maybe the Cajuns can dream of advancing again.

“We really needed those guys, and they stepped up to the challenge,” junior shortstop Blake Trahan said. “We’re proud of them, we’re hoping they can finish strong and have a good regional and maybe a little after.”

Their transformation into not just productive members of the lineup but feared sluggers? It may have been surprising based on expectations at the beginning of the year, but it’s accepted as the status quo now.

“We’re not even surprised anymore,” senior outfielder Dylan Butler said. “That’s just who they are and what they can do.”