TROY, Ala. — Sun Belt Conference play comes early for Louisiana-Lafayette this weekend, in more ways than one.
Because the Sun Belt now boasts 11 baseball teams, creating one “open” week for each team during the conference season, the league schedule has opened one week earlier over the past two seasons than in previous years. That’s why the Ragin’ Cajuns have only three weekends of play under their belts before hitting the road to start Sun Belt play Friday against the Troy Trojans.
“It’s not an unfair thing, since everyone has to do it,” Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux said. “We just have to be ready for it.”
The Cajuns (8-5) have not been ready for the rigors of the road this season, and that makes the task doubly difficult for the weekend series that begins at 6 p.m. Friday at Riddle-Pace Field.
The final two games of the series are at 3 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday, all weather permitting.
The Cajuns have won only once in six tries away from M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field after falling 5-3 at Tulane on Tuesday night, but Robichaux was more concerned about the number of new faces that figure to play in this weekend’s series.
Six regular starters — junior college signees Alex Pinero, Steven Sensley, Ishmael Edwards and Brad Antchak and freshmen Hunter Kasuls and Dylon Poncho — have never taken the field for a Sun Belt game.
“You’d like to get that one more week of games under your belt,” Robichaux said. “When you have a veteran team it doesn’t matter, but with us and the new players it’s a lot nicer to have that extra time.”
The Cajuns opened SBC play with a three-game sweep of Troy at the “Tigue” last season, so Troy will look to return that favor — and will be thrilled just to get back home.
The Trojans (9-5) started the season red-hot but had lost six of seven games, all but one of them away from home, before winning 10-0 at Jacksonville State on Wednesday. Other than that victory, Troy’s only win in the last two weeks was an 11-inning 4-3 defeat of Auburn in last weekend’s Cox Diamond Invitational in Pensacola, Florida.
But the Trojans are 5-1 at home this season. Combined, Troy and UL-Lafayette are 12-1 at home and 4-9 away from home this season.
“Our batting average, our slugging average, they’re higher at home,” Robichaux said. “The road’s always tough, but to be a champion you have to win on the road. Troy was playing well earlier, and we know we’re going to have weather issues to play with us this week, so we have to try not to stray away from what we do well, pitch and play good defense.”
The Cajun newcomer class went 2-for-15 at the plate in Tuesday’s loss to the Green Wave. For the season, the newcomers are hitting .280 while the veterans are at .341 through 13 games, and it doesn’t help that returning All-Sun Belt outfielder Kyle Clement (.429) remains sidelined with a broken hand.
“We forget that when our veterans play well, how tough it was when they started,” Robichaux said. “When we opened last year with the freshman pitchers they were so uncomfortable, but the more they went out there the more they learned.”
The pitching staff is still young, with sophomore left-hander Gunner Leger (1-1, 1.08) and sophomore right-hander Wyatt Marks (2-0, 2.50) slated for the Friday and Saturday starts and freshman right-hander Nick Lee (2-0, 2.12) getting the call Sunday. All three worked six innings last weekend in a sweep of Sacred Heart, and combined to allow only two runs while striking out 20.
Senior righthander Grant Bennett (2-0, 1.80) will get Friday’s call for the Trojans, with senior righthander Lucas Brown (2-1, 1.69) going Saturday and Loreauville native and junior lefthander Evan Hebert (1-2, 3.57) set for Sunday.
The absence of Clement has created some shuffling in the Cajuns defensive lineup, with red-hot Joe Robbins (.460) returning to center field after opening up at third base and shortstop. Brenn Conrad (.326) has moved from second base to third base, and Pinero has started at first base in six of the last 11 games. That has allowed returning All-American Stefan Trosclair to return from first to his more-comfortable spot at second base.
Sensley, who has not seen action since a hamstring injury running to first base in the opener against Sacred Heart, is expected to return this weekend and will likely be the designated hitter.
“We think we have the right players running around out there,” Robichaux said. “Sensley’s hammie slowed him a little, and we needed him to heal up and come on like we know he can. That’s another physical hitter that can really help us, we need another guy that’s got presence in the lineup.”