Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories on the Ragin’ Cajuns’ baseball team as it looks to next season. Today, the focus is on the pitching staff.
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LAFAYETTE — Louisiana-Lafayette baseball coach Tony Robichaux knew he had talent in his pitching staff entering the 2015 season. He also knew potential is often a fleeting thing.
“I definitely didn’t have that good feeling about them in the fall,” Robichaux said of what eventually became the nation’s best all-freshman rotation. “In this system, you always back up before you go forward.”
Next season, he won’t have that problem. That young mound corps finished the year ranked in the top 20 nationally in three key pitching categories: strikeout-to-walk ratio (20th, 2.73), walks (20th, 2.63 per nine innings) and walks and hits per inning (16th, 1.20). The Ragin’ Cajuns also ranked 36th nationally in hits allowed per game (8.17) and 45th in ERA (3.37).
Robichaux is anticipating a different problem.
“Some are thinking they’re not going to give up an earned run in a nine-inning game,” he half-joked. “They’ve been pitching as freshmen when they were the underdog, and now they’ll be going from a place where they’re supposed to be good.”
Robichaux will admit that the latter problem is preferable to the worries of last fall. At that time, UL-Lafayette faced the prospect of replacing its three weekend starters and the bulk of its bullpen. Austin Robichaux, Carson Baranik and Cody Boutte combined for a 28-6 record as the 2014 weekend starters. Beyond that, Matt Hicks was 8-1 with a 1.41 ERA, Ryan Wilson checked in at 6-0 and 2.08 with seven saves, and Matt Plitt was 2-0 with five late-season saves.
“They had to deal with the reality of what they lost,” Robichaux said of that departed group. “That is so hard to recover from. And to do it with freshman pitching ... ”
The threesome of lefty Gunner Leger and righties Wyatt Marks and Evan Guillory made up the Cajuns’ weekend rotation during the latter half of the season. Only two other Division I schools nationally started three true freshmen for conference series — and Cincinnati and San Jose State combined to go 30-82. UL-Lafayette also turned to freshman Dylan Moore for closer duties before midseason, and the Hughes Springs, Texas, product set a school record with 13 saves while compiling a 1.60 ERA.
Leger finished with a 6-5 mark against Friday night competition all season, and he ended up as one of only two pitchers nationally to make 18 starts heading into the College World Series. His 2.99 ERA was the lowest among the starting group, and his 114.1 innings made him the only Cajuns player to throw more than 90 innings.
Guillory, the only one of the freshmen to start in the season’s opening series at Texas-San Antonio, finished 5-0 with a 4.05 ERA, and Marks was 6-1 with a 3.24 ERA after joining the weekend rotation at midseason.
Moore (3-3) had four saves in the postseason, two of them in the NCAA tournament’s Houston regional and a rare two in one day during the Sun Belt tournament.
“We showed some flashes in the fall,” Robichaux said. “One night (Moore) came out under the lights and blew us away, I think seven strikeouts in three innings, and one day Guillory came out and overmatched us. You could see Gunner’s demand on himself every time he’d go out. Wyatt was lagging behind a little because he had closer mentality; he’d come after you so hard so early. He learned a lot in a short amount of time. We talked as coaches that those were the three guys that had the best ability to start for us.”
Along with that freshman corps, junior righty Will Bacon (6-3, 3.14) became a fixture in middle relief with 28 appearances and the staff’s third-highest inning total (71.2), along with a pair of postseason victories. Junior righty Colton Lee (2-3, 3.40), a sidearm reliever, also had three saves, and he and Marks each wound up averaging better than one strikeout per inning.
Seven other pitchers, including opening night starter Chris Charpentier (4-3, 5.08), also are slated to return in 2016. The only expected departure from the corps is senior righty Greg Milhorn (5-1, 4.70), who had three postseason wins, including two in the five-game Sun Belt tournament run.
“It’s pretty impressive that none of those guys really hit a wall,” Robichaux said, “especially because some of them, like the freshmen, didn’t throw a lot of innings coming in here. You’d think the freshmen, it would catch up with them, but it never did.”