Louisiana-Lafayette has been one of the most remarkable stories in college baseball all season.
But Jackson State beat the Ragin’ Cajuns and topped them in the headline-making department Friday night at Moore Field.
The Tigers beat the nation’s consensus No. 1 team 1-0 in the opening round of the NCAA Lafayette Regional. A team that entered the tournament with a 32-22 record beat the No. 6 national seed, which had the most wins in the country (53) and the longest win streak (10).
This is a team that wasn’t even on the NCAA tournament radar until it upset Southwestern Athletic Conference regular-season champion Alabama State 9-8 in the conference tournament final to claim an automatic bid to the field of 64.
It’s a team that less than a month ago was standing on the side of a highway watching its bus succumb to a fire during what was supposed to be a road trip to Savannah State.
While other teams were polishing their resumes for the NCAA selection committee, Jackson State was scrambling to replace gloves and clothes and personal items destroyed in the fire.
Then they went to New Orleans and claimed themselves an NCAA bid. Then they went to Lafayette and beat the No. 1 team in the country.
How’s that for a storyline?
Starting pitcher Vincent Anthonia, who shut out the Cajuns for six innings despite allowing base runners in each, said the team had a meeting in its hotel Thursday night.
“We told each other to have fun,” Anthonia said. “There was really nothing to lose, so just come in and play the game we love.”
JSU coach Omar Johnson chose to start Anthonia over his No. 1 starter Desmond Russell because he knew the stage wouldn’t be too big for him. He based that assessment on Anthonia pitching well against Alabama when the Crimson Tide was ranked No. 8 as well as pitching for his native Curacao in the 2006 and 2007 Little League World Series.
“Pressure is not a big deal for him,” Johnson said.
UL-Lafayette put plenty of pressure on Anthonia, who didn’t have a 1-2-3 inning, by putting seven runners on base on six innings. But Athonia always found a valve to release it.
“I had to trust my changeup,” Anthonia said. “That’s basically all I threw the whole game. I had to keep it down because if I didn’t they would just keep hitting bombs.”
UL-Lafayette never got the one hit it needed, stranding 11 runners even after two others were thrown out on the bases.
Alexander Juday relieved Anthonia and followed the same pattern, allowing three runners in the seventh and two in the eighth before setting the Cajuns down in order for the only time all night in the ninth.
This outcome was national news because the magnitude of the upset, but neither coach saw it that way.
“I’m sure it will be a big deal because we’re the number one team,” Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux said. “But you don’t have to be the number one team to end up number one. That’s what so dangerous about this game.”
Johnson praised UL-Lafayette, even pleading to locals not to take the Cajuns’ stellar regular season “for granted.”
But he added, “You’re playing against the ball. If you catch the ball and throw the ball it doesn’t matter if it’s the Yankees on the other end.”
What seemed like an innocuous RBI-single by Melvin Rodriguez in the fourth turned out to be the hit that put the Cajuns on the brink of elimination.
Meanwhile, the Tigers play Mississippi State in a winners bracket game at 6 p.m. Saturday, which will put that winner in the driver’s seat.
“This is amazing,” Rodriguez said. “This is something special. I respect the other team and I respect my teammates too. We’ve had to fight the whole year.
“We played in the SWAC tournament like we hadn’t the whole year. That was like the beginning of the year for us.”
Johnson was asked about the significance of JSU’s first NCAA tournament victory ever.
“Right now,” he said, “all we’re thinking about is working on the second.”
Cajuns shortstop Blake Trahan said he was confident UL-Lafayette, which hasn’t lost consecutive games this season, can battle back and win four straight to advance to a super regional.
But, first things first.
The key, Robichaux said, was not to let the effects of Friday night’s disappointment linger when the Cajuns take the field again 17 hours later.
“What we have to do is get these guys to bed,” he said, “and not let our pet monkey turn into Godzilla overnight.”