LAFAYETTE — For two straight years, Omaha was so close that the Louisiana-Lafayette baseball team could almost feel the cool Midwestern breeze on its collective neck.
The 2013 and 2014 iterations of the Ragin’ Cajuns were different teams with different strengths, but the end result remained heartbreakingly constant. For two straight years, their season ended right there on the brink, one and two wins shy of reaching college baseball’s promised land.
Now they’re hoping the old saying is true: Is the third time really a charm?
For that to come to fruition, the Cajuns — ranked as high as No. 6 and no lower than No. 18 in the numerous preseason college baseball polls — will have to realize their immense potential.
“It’s kind of like rungs on a ladder: You’ve got to get there,” coach Tony Robichaux said. “We were able the last two years to be able to get there, but every year is a different year. Our biggest concern right now is to continue to take steps to reach our potential. What our potential is, we don’t know. That’s why we’ve got to play the season. The one thing we do know is what the outside world thinks of our potential by ranking us as high as they have. What we’ve got to do is find out what our potential is.”
All the pieces are there for this year’s team to make another run at an ever-elusive trip to the College World Series. On Friday against Sam Houston State, they’ll get to take their first steps toward realizing that potential.
The Cajuns’ potential is built largely on the backs of an impressively deep pitching staff, which was largely responsible for the postseason run of a year ago and to which the team added a pair of high-powered freshman arms in Nick Lee and Hogan Harris.
Oddly enough, it was that pitching staff that was the greatest question mark about the Cajuns this time last season. But Gunner Leger, Wyatt Marks, Evan Guillory and Dylan Moore — all freshmen at the time — finished the season as reliable cogs, making up the entirety of the weekend rotation and the closer’s role.
“We know it’s hard to repeat success, and that’s what we’re all planning on doing,” Moore said. “We’ve worked hard during the offseason, and we’ve all progressed from where we were last year — which is what we have to do. You can’t just stay the same.”
With those four coming back along with the addition of the two freshmen, the Cajuns are in the enviable position of having a four-man rotation — with Guillory starting the season in the midweek starter’s role — as well as having multiple filthy options to slam the door at the back end of the game.
In Robichaux parlance, that will allow the Cajuns to “shorten the game,” with the starters lasting into the later innings before handing the ball over to a nasty bullpen that features four more pitchers capable of closing games out.
That role likely will belong mostly to Moore, who set a single-season saves record as a freshman despite not closing his first game until March 8. Moore’s deceptive delivery and effective 1-2 fastball/slider combination limited opposing hitters to a .205 batting average last season, and his 1.60 ERA was the best on the staff.
But Robichaux also has Reagan Bazar, the 6-foot-7 right-hander with a live arm who closed six games as a freshman, and Harris, another hard thrower whom Robichaux said profiles as either a closer or a starter. He also can bring in senior right-hander Will Bacon, who is not as overpowering as the other three options but was reliable as they come as a bridge to Moore at the end of games.
“It’s good for our team,” Leger said about the depth of the staff. “It’s good for our hitters knowing that they have that and they don’t have to go out and score 10 runs a game.”
But the hitters are part of the equation, too. The Cajuns’ arsenal of arms earn much of the attention, but the lineup should be formidable as well.
Seniors Stefan Trosclair and Kyle Clement are back to headline the Cajuns’ offensive attack after combining to hit .342 with 61 extra base hits and 85 RBIs between them last season — and most of that damage was done after April.
They, along with steady senior backstop Nick Thurman, likely will be the only mainstays in the Cajuns lineup — at least in the early portion of the season. In this case, it’s because Robichaux has too many options to keep his lineup to nine players right now.
The Cajuns won’t benefit from the services of All-America shortstop Blake Trahan, who took his slick glove and .331 career batting average with him to the Cincinnati Reds organization. They also won’t have the steadiness of designated hitter Tyler Girouard or periodic power of right fielder Dylan Butler or first baseman Greg Davis, all of whom graduated.
But there are returning players and newcomers ready to take their place, so many that Robichaux will likely have them split time early.
The Cajuns coach might platoon left-handed and right-handed players, or he may simply go with the hot hand. But outside of Clement, Trosclair and Thurman — two of whom play multiple positions — every other position on the diamond can be filled by at least two capable players.
Everything’s lining up for another great year, but Robichaux wants to make sure his guys keep the edge that helped them get to where they’ve been the last few years.
“Our biggest ultimate goal is to get back to a super regional and try to learn how to push through,” Robichaux said. “It’s an elusive thing with over 300 teams trying to get eight spots. It’s not an easy thing to do.
“Over the last two years our guys have taken something difficult and made it look easy. That’s where the trouble starts, when things start to look like it’s an easy thing.”
If there’s any good to come out of ending the season one or two wins shy of Omaha, it’s that there’s inherent knowledge of the difficulty of the task.