LAFAYETTE — Louisiana-Lafayette’s baseball team wants this weekend to provide a preview for the Sun Belt Conference tournament, and locking up their first tangible goal of the season would be a good start.
The third-ranked Ragin’ Cajuns (43-7, 20-4 Sun Belt) travel to face South Alabama in a Sun Belt series Friday through Sunday at USA’s Stanky Field. The Mobile facility will also host the Sun Belt Tournament beginning May 21, and barring a collapse in the final two weekends the Cajuns will go into that event as the regular-season champions and the No. 1 seed.
“There’s some advantage to us going there and playing right now,” said UL-Lafayette coach Tony Robichaux, whose team has won all eight of its Sun Belt series this year, sweeping four and taking 2-1 wins in the others. “We have some guys that haven’t played there before, so going there and being successful is going to be important. I think our hitters will like swinging in that park.”
With six conference games to play, UL-Lafayette holds a five-game lead over Arkansas State and Texas State, both at 15-9, and holds the tiebreaker advantage over both courtesy of those 2-1 series wins. One Cajuns win — or one loss by both ASU and TSU — would lock up the No. 1 seed. A combination of two of those would give UL-Lafayette its first Sun Belt title since 2007.
But Robichaux knows it won’t be easy to reach those marks this weekend, even though the Jaguars (21-26, 10-13) aren’t playing to their normal high standards.
“There’s a lot of history there,” he said “They (USA) have been at the front of this conference for so long, going back to coach (Steve) Kittrell and all the players he ran through there. They’re a proud program and organization, and the bottom line is nobody wants you dancing on their mound.
“No matter what anyone’s record is, we’re going to get everybody’s best shot and everybody’s best crowd, and everybody has adrenaline when they face us, and adrenaline can turn a .235 hitter into a .300 hitter. We’re going to have to deal with that the rest of the way.”
The Cajuns enter the weekend ranked either second or third in all five major polls, but with postseason play around the corner, the more important numbers are the NCAA’s RPI rankings. UL-Lafayette jumped from 12th to seventh in this week’s RPI, one of the main tools the NCAA Division I Baseball Committee uses to determine national seeds.
Robichaux says his team isn’t focused on that, but in their final two weekend series at USA and a three-game home finale May 15-17 against UL-Monroe and in the upcoming league tournament, the Cajuns are playing for one of those national seeds and the right to host NCAA regional and super regional tournaments.
“This weekend’s no different,” Robichaux said. “Our first goal is the same as it’s been all along — to win the series, and so far we’ve been able to do that. Whether it means a championship or not, we just want to play consistent baseball and win a series on the road.”
UL-Lafayette figures to use its same rotation, setting up a stellar pitching matchup at 6:30 p.m. Friday between Cajuns junior Austin Robichaux (6-2, 3.41) and USA junior left-hander Locke St. John (6-1, 3.16). Junior Carson Baranik (9-1, 3.02), the Sun Belt leader in wins, is set for Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. game after a two-hit, 84-pitch complete-game win at Arkansas State. Senior left-hander Cody Boutte (6-0, 2.62), who pitched six three-hit innings before the bullpen struggled in a 6-4 Sunday loss to the Red Wolves, will look to stay unbeaten in Sunday’s 1 p.m. finale.
The Cajuns take a team .318 batting average — .333 in Sun Belt games — into the weekend series against a Jaguars team that has hit only seven home runs this season. Three UL-Lafayette players have that many or more, led by Caleb Adams’ 10.
“We played in a park that was tough to score runs last week,” Robichaux said of the ASU trip. “The ballpark we’re going to this week is conducive to scoring runs.”