TROY, Ala. — There are a lot of things for Louisiana-Lafayette’s baseball team to smile about as it enters the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
The Ragin’ Cajuns are the defending champions, sweeping through all four games a year ago for their first tournament title since 1998, and they have made the championship game each of the past two seasons.
They’re coming in on a high note, having shaken off a 1-4 slide by sweeping three road games at Louisiana-Monroe last weekend. Those wins added to the road success for a team that won 60 percent (15 of 25) of its away games this year.
UL-Lafayette went 8-1 during the regular season against the three teams on its side of the bracket, including two wins at first-round foe Texas State, which they scored 28 runs against in mid-April.
And, despite their No. 3 seed in the tournament, the Cajuns have by far the highest RPI in the field, standing at No. 54 this week. League regular-season champion South Alabama is No. 84; No. 2 seed (and tournament host) Troy is No. 103.
“I’m proud of these guys for being where they’re at,” said Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux, whose 34-20 squad squares off with Texas State (22-30-1) at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Riddle-Pace Field. “To play for a conference championship a week ago and to go in here with the best RPI in our conference, a lot of credit for what they accomplished according to what they lost.”
A year ago, the Cajuns were the nation’s No. 1 team heading into the league tournament in Mobile, Alabama, and they were assured of no worse than a regional host spot. Winning the Sun Belt tournament locked in a national seed as part of a final 58-10 record.
Things are different this time. It’s likely that UL-Lafayette has to win the tournament to keep playing after this week, but that’s the case for the entire field. Even USA (34-18) isn’t a lock because of that low RPI.
“Everyone’s going to be after the same thing,” Robichaux said. “Last year, nobody could look at us and say, ‘You guys aren’t in a regional.’ Right now, the RPI creates some urgency in this tournament for everybody. We can’t go in believing we’re in. They’ve never really failed to take a conference champion, but at the end of the day everybody’s thinking they need to win it.”
“We lost a lot of games that we shouldn’t have, that we could have pulled out, and maybe given us a better chance to make a regional,” said freshman left-hander Gunner Leger (6-4, 2.90 ERA), who will get Wednesday’s starting nod. “We’re kind of in a little pinch right now where we probably have to win. But I think we have a good shot. ... Our hitters have been hitting well, and we’ve been throwing well all year.”
Leger was talking about the entire staff, but he could have been describing himself. The Barbe graduate has given up seven earned runs in his past five starts (for a 1.80 ERA) and hasn’t walked a batter in 35 straight innings. The last base on balls he issued was to Texas State’s Cory Geisler on April 18 when the Cajuns beat the Bobcats 11-3.
He’ll likely match up again with TSU’s Lucas Humpal (5-6, 5.21), whom the Cajuns touched for six earned runs in that Friday night win.
“Gunner has been lights out for us on that first night out,” Robichaux said.
Leger also leads three freshmen who likely will get UL-Lafayette’s first three starts in the modified double-elimination tournament. In fact, it was that April series at TSU when Leger, Evan Guillory (3-0, 4.28) and Wyatt Marks (5-1, 3.00) first made up the all-frosh weekend rotation. Marks likely will get the call in Thursday’s second game, when the Cajuns will face Troy or UT-Arlington.
“There’s two other teams that start three freshmen: Cincinnati and San Jose State,” Robichaux said. “Not to be disrespectful, but I think they’re both about 15-40 (they’re actually 15-40 and 13-43). I’ve got a saying: You pitch your way into a tournament and hit your way through it. ... That’s why last year’s team was so good.”
The Cajuns hit their way through their last series, scoring 21 runs while posting 5-4 and 6-4 comeback wins in a rain-forced Saturday doubleheader at ULM. UL-Lafayette’s .275 team batting mark and its 3.47 team ERA rank second in the league behind only South Alabama.
“It was huge last weekend that we did well offensively,” said senior Tyler Girouard, who at .333 is one of four Cajuns starters hitting over .330. “It was good to get rolling, and that’s what we needed going into the tournament.”