LAFAYETTE — Louisiana-Lafayette’s baseball team is in every national preseason poll — as high as 14th in one — after winning 43 games and reaching the NCAA tournament’s Baton Rouge Regional last spring.
Coach Tony Robichaux expected those lofty rankings since his Ragin’ Cajuns lineup is missing only one starter from 2013 and his pitching staff figures to be vastly improved. He’s also convinced his team that the polls won’t mean anything in May and June.
“We haven’t won anything yet,” said Robichaux, whose team opens the year with a four-game series Feb. 14-16 against Eastern Illinois. “The polls are just on paper. Rankings are something that are given to you. ... We haven’t earned anything yet.”
The Cajuns are ranked 14th by Baseball America, 23rd by Collegiate Baseball and 24th by USA Today, and those rankings were a major topic of discussion at the program’s media day Monday at Moore Field.
“It’s good to be recognized, but we have to keep our heads out of the polls,” said junior outfielder/DH Caleb Adams, one of seven position starters returning. “We know we have a good club, but we also know what we have to do to reach our goals.”
“We have a huge target on our backs,” junior second baseman Jace Conrad said. “Right after the regional last year, the coaches said to get ready because we’re just beginning and that everybody’s going to be looking to beat us this year.”
That may be a tough task, especially if some highly regarded newcomers bolster the pitching staff as expected. UL-Lafayette returns nine of its top 10 hitters from last season; six of them hit .311 or better. The Cajuns hit .317 as a team last year after batting only .263 in a 2012 season when they finished 23-30.
“Everyone on this team knows their role,” Adams said of the hitters. “We’ve got guys that are gonna hit the jacks, but we don’t care who gets the big hit, and we’ve got a lot of guys that can do that.”
Adams is one of those jack-hitters. His 16 homers and 55 RBIs were the highest for any Cajun since the 2010 season, when UL-Lafayette reached the NCAA’s Austin Regional, and 10 players had at least 30 RBIs. The only departure from that group is outfielder and leadoff hitter Dex Kjerstad, who passed on his senior year and signed a free-agent contract with the Kansas City Royals after leading the Sun Belt in hitting (.388).
Seth Harrison (.338, nine homers) and Dylan Butler (.295), the team’s home run and RBIs leader from 2012, are back in the outfield. Conrad (.286), Tyler Girouard (.360, seven HRs), Ryan Leonards (.328), Blake Trahan (.319) and Chase Compton (.265), the 2012 team leader at .328, solidify the infield. Michael Strentz (.311, seven HRs) also returns behind the plate.
Last year’s pitching staff had a 4.40 ERA, good by college baseball standards but not by Robichaux’s. It was the highest such mark since 2010 despite UL-Lafayette winning nearly 70 percent of the time last season.
All three normal weekend starters and eight of last year’s top nine ERA throwers return, including regular Friday starter Austin Robichaux. The son of the Cajuns coach went 9-2 with three complete games and a 3.05 ERA.
The younger Robichaux figures to join new faces in the weekend rotation. Junior college newcomers Carson Baranik, who pitched at LSU as a freshman before going to Miami-Dade Community College, and Greg Milhorn figure to be in the loop for opening weekend. Returning starters Cody Boutte (8-4) and Ryan Wilson (6-4) figure to be spot starters and work in short relief, respectively, along with returnee Matt Plitt (4-1). Matt Hicks (3-2, 11 saves) will team with Wilson for closing duties.
“Right now Austin and Baranik are the first two out,” Tony Robichaux said. “After that, we can come with a lot of different options, and I like having Wilson and Hicks to give us a left-right to close. Both of them are experienced, and that’s important there.”
The Cajuns also figure to be deeper in the field, which Robichaux hopes will ensure the injury bug that plagued the squad last season doesn’t reappear.
“We got to regional, and we weren’t healthy,” he said. “We’ve got a lot more depth, and we expect our hitters to give us some chances to get our younger pitchers in and get them some work. We just have to stay healthy.”