LAFAYETTE — It took a while for Kyle Clement to get his opportunity with the UL-Lafayette baseball team, but considering the route he’s taken to get to this point, patience doesn’t appear to be an issue for the fourth-year junior.
Timing? He’s had to work on that, but it looks like he’s got that down now, too.
After struggling offensively through much of the first half of the season, Clement has been a revelation at the plate for a suddenly resurgent Cajuns offense.
“Right now, he’s confident, the team is confident, and all of a sudden everybody’s waiting for him to do good, and guess what happens? It shows up,” coach Tony Robichaux said.
In his last 12 games — 11 of them starts — Clement has 21 hits in 45 at-bats. He has scored 13 runs and driven in 10 more. These aren’t just cheap hits, either — six have been doubles, one was a historic triple, and four have left the yard entirely.
“I’m really relaxed and comfortable in the box right now,” Clement said. “I’m trying to stay in that mindset, even if I strike out my first at-bat. ... Always being optimistic, that’s what I really try to do. It’s easy to beat yourself up as a hitter.”
It’s enough to make a curious mind wonder where exactly Clement came from — especially considering that in his first 46 career games, he had more strikeouts (24) than hits (21).
It’s not as if he came out of nowhere — he prepped just down the road at Catholic-New Iberia — but his journey to the No. 2 spot in the Cajuns lineup hasn’t exactly been conventional.
He committed to play for Southeastern Louisiana the summer before his senior season at Catholic. The Lions were in the midst of a great season at the time, and Clement planned on honoring his commitment.
But he only spent one semester at Southeastern. He was in line to earn a starting spot as a freshman, but he didn’t fully buy in to the Lions’ offensive philosophy and decided to transfer before his career even started.
He spent the spring and summer away from the game at UL-Lafayette while he weighed his junior college options. He decided on Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, and after hitting .380 in his lone season there, he booked a one-way trip home.
“I just feel back in my element,” Clement said. “I’m from here, I grew up watching UL baseball, I’ve loved the program and I felt like it was the best fit for me.”
Still, it took him time to find his stride — literally.
He spent most of last season on the bench while the Cajuns won 58 games. He got an opportunity to seize a starting gig in the outfield this season, but he didn’t produce at the plate and found himself back on the bench.
“I think it does help from time to time to sit for a little bit and not just keep struggling,” Robichaux said. “Sometimes you try to get them out or move them down in the order. I just think it’s taken us some time to get to this point.”
Re-focused from his time on the bench, things started to click for Clement when he got his timing down at the plate.
“My feet are really on time right now,” Clement said. “At the beginning of the season, my load was either too early or too late. Something was out of sync, and I was rolling over and popping up a lot of balls. I slowed my feet down and really got them on time.”
This show he’s put on in recent weeks might be a surprise to those who only see the team on gameday, but Clement’s teammates figured this was coming.
“Everybody knows that Kyle Clement’s a hitter,” said Dylan Butler, who added that Clement usually puts on a power display at batting practice.
It was Butler who was the first to congratulate Clement when he became the first Cajun in 25 years to hit for the cycle, which he completed with a seventh-inning triple against Jackson State earlier this month.
It was more than a congratulations, though. Clement didn’t even know what he’d accomplished yet.
“When he hit third base I called his name and said, ‘Dude, you just hit for the cycle!’ ” Butler recalled. “He didn’t even know. He hit that final triple and I had to tell him myself that he hit for the cycle.
“That’s basically what kind of person he is. He’s out here playing, he’s having fun. He’s not keeping track of that. That’s why he’s able to hit as good as he is right now.”
Clement is working on a six-game hitting streak, and he’ll try to keep that going in a three-game series against UT-Arlington this weekend.
The Mavericks (17-22, 8-10) last met the Cajuns (25-15, 10-7) in the Sun Belt Conference tournament final last season, which the Cajuns won 6-5. UT-Arlington has lost 13 of its last 19 games, while the Cajuns have won 10 of their last 12.