LAFAYETTE — Louisiana-Lafayette baseball coach Tony Robichaux took an hour Wednesday to conduct a post-mortem on his team’s 2016 season instead of preparing for Mississippi State and the Starkville super regional.
Robichaux did not anticipate that would be the case going into Monday, when the Cajuns needed to win one of two games on their home turf to advance. Looking around at his team after its second loss that day, Robichaux could see his players felt the same.
That, Robichaux said, was a good sign.
“The one thing we do is we have high expectations,” Robichaux said. “What’s great is when I first got here we were minus a couple scholarships and on probation, I don’t know if Omaha or a super regional was the bar.
“I told the players after the game the other night, ‘This is going to hurt.’ The reason it’s going to hurt is because we want more. Our bar is set very high. We want to win a national championship. To do that, you’ve got to get to a super regional, and we didn’t do that, so it hurts.”
So now the attention turns toward next season and finding a way to get over that hump that has eluded some very good Cajuns teams in recent years.
The pitching, in Robichaux’s estimation, will be good enough to get there. With the exception of reliable right-hander Eric Carter, the Cajuns will likely return just about every pitcher who played a key role on the team’s staff this year.
Back for sure will be Gunner Leger and Nick Lee, the top two starters from this year’s team, and Evan Guillory, who was coming on strong before closing the season on a sour note with back-to-back outings where he didn’t record an out.
Also likely to be back are Wyatt Marks, who opened the season in the weekend rotation, and standout closer Dylan Moore. Both are draft-eligible sophomores who Robichaux said he believes will return for their junior seasons.
Add to the mix left-hander Hogan Harris, who was impressive in limited work as a freshman, and incoming left-hander Colten Schmidt, who Robichaux is very high on, and the pitching staff might be even better than it was this season when it posted the Cajuns’ lowest team ERA (3.25) since 1989.
“This pitching staff has a chance to be really good,” Robichaux said. “The incoming guys, we’ve got a couple of them in there that I think can pitch on the weekend. Everybody’s going to come back better. Even though Wyatt and Evan stumbled a little bit at the end, I told them, ‘Don’t let one game define you. Use it to grow, use it as a stepping stone, use it to stay hungry all summer.’
“We’ve got to work real hard to stay healthy with this staff because they got a chance to be good. When you can pitch every night out, you’ve got a great opportunity to win, that’s where it starts.”
The hope is that the pitching staff and the defense behind it can cover while the offense takes the necessary time to figure out how to replace some impact players from this season.
The Cajuns are losing four of their top six run producers in Stefan Trosclair, Brian Mills, Nick Thurman and Kyle Clement. On top of that, they played very well at some critical positions.
In addition to hitting a team-best .353, Clement patrolled center field for the Cajuns. Thurman called and caught nearly every pitch of the past two seasons, and played a large part in developing the team’s young pitching staff.
It’s early, but Robichaux said Clement’s departure might necessitate a return to center field by Joe Robbins, taking away the Cajuns’ strongest infield defender there.
After Ryne Ray spent his freshman season on the shelf with a nagging leg injury, Robichaux sounded comfortable in incoming signee Handsome Monica to take over for Thurman behind the plate, possibly requiring Ray to move to another position that places less stress on the legs.
“The oldest catcher coming in is Handsome Monica, and when you’re named Handsome, you ought to have a shot,” Robichaux wisecracked. “The thing about him is he brings a lot of energy. … It will take a little while to get our system under him, but our system is not impossible to learn. Thurman got it and was able just to keep it.”
Robichaux also expects an improvement from players like Alex Pinero and Steven Sensley, who came on strong late after slow starts to their Cajuns careers.
It all points to the Cajuns making another run at a very good season, which is evident even in the wake of Monday’s disappointment.
After Monday’s game, Robichaux gathered his team and told it not to focus on the failures, but the accomplishments: the Sun Belt’s regular season and tournament titles and the people they impacted. Then, it’s time to go for it again.
“Do we accept that we didn’t win? No, we wanted to win,” Robichaux said. “But at the end of the day (Monday), 18 or 19 (teams) are still playing baseball out of 305, 306 (teams). There is some honor in that, hopefully they can learn from that. We’ll regroup.”