Georgia Southern is a brand-new Sun Belt Conference baseball member — one that started the season well but one that has struggled at times on the road.
The Eagles are also a team that can pitch. GSU has a 2.76 team ERA in league play, and scheduled Friday and Saturday starters Evan Challenger and Tripp Sheppard both rank among the top eight in the league in ERA.
UL-Lafayette coach Tony Robichaux isn’t concerned about meeting a team his squad has never faced, and he’s more concerned about how the Ragin’ Cajuns play in the three-game Sun Belt series that begins at 6 p.m. Friday at M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field.
“We always worry about us,” Robichaux said Thursday. “Having a new team come in doesn’t spook us. We know they’re a good baseball team and they’ve played well, but we’re at home and we need to put three games together.”
Putting three solid games together is something the Cajuns (15-11, 7-4) haven’t done since opening the league season with a three-game sweep over Troy. They have won two of three over the past two conference weekends to hang onto third place, and technically they haven’t lost a three-game conference series since the 2013 season.
But UL-Lafayette lost the opener in each of those series, and Robichaux said it was details that led to the Friday losses at Georgia State and against Arkansas State — and, for that matter, Tuesday’s 8-6 loss to LSU in Metairie in the Wally Pontiff Classic.
“Little things have haunted us all season, just playing good defense and running the bases,” he said. “We have five more wins this year if we play better defense, but we have played better defensively the last three games. We’ve been fortunate to put two of three together those weekends and that’s good because we’re young and trying to find consistency.”
The visiting Eagles (17-13, 7-5) and UL-Lafayette provide a rarity this weekend in that both teams won conference tournament titles last year. While the Cajuns were going 58-10 and winning the Sun Belt regular-season and tournament titles, along with hosting NCAA regional and super regional rounds, Georgia Southern went 40-23 and earned an NCAA berth by winning the Southern Conference tournament in its last season in that league.
GSU started out hot this year, also, holding an 11-5 record one week into March after sweeping fellow former Southern Conference member Appalachian State. The Eagles, though, are only 3-7 on the road this season and dropped two of three at Texas State last weekend.
The Cajuns will go with the same rotation as last weekend, with freshman left-hander Gunner Leger (3-1, 3.63) going up against Challenger (2-0, 1.02) in Friday’s opener. Leger was tagged with his first collegiate loss in last Friday’s 10-4 setback against ASU, while Challenger has not allowed an earned run in his last 15 2/3 innings in wins over Troy and ASU. He did not throw in last weekend’s series.
Senior right-hander Greg Milhorn (1-0, 3.70) will face Sheppard (2-2, 3.03) at 6 p.m. Saturday, while freshman right-hander Evan Guillory (2-0, 4.70) goes against GSU left-hander Connor Simmons (1-1, 2.03) in the noon Sunday game. This will be the last Easter game for Sun Belt teams for the foreseeable future, as Robichaux led a lobbying effort to move future Easter weekend series back to Thursday-Saturday.
“We’ll look at that rotation one more weekend,” Robichaux said. “You don’t want to change that around a lot, because you either cut a day of rest or you add rest and you’re constantly manipulating their workload. They (the starters) have their schedule and you can throw it off if you move them around.”
The Cajuns used seven pitchers in brief stints in Tuesday’s game, and should have all hands available for the weekend series. The same should be true for the Eagles, who did not play a midweek game.
“The Tuesday games are nice because they have Wednesday and Thursday to recover,” Robichaux said. “We were able to put a young pitching staff in tough conditions Tuesday with 10,000 fans and a great atmosphere, and got them used to that environment. You want to be prepared for that when it happens again.”