LAFAYETTE — Carson Baranik knew the gravity of the situation. So did Louisiana-Lafayette’s hitters after they were a nonfactor in the Ragin’ Cajuns’ worst loss of the season just 18 hours earlier.
But Baranik and the lineup stepped up, and the result was survival in the NCAA baseball tournament’s Lafayette regional.
The junior righthander scattered six hits and pitched strongly into the seventh inning, and Michael Strentz’s second-inning home run keyed an early surge as UL-Lafayette rolled to a 9-2 win over San Diego State in Saturday’s elimination game.
“Carson pitched like Carson’s capable of,” said Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux, whose team rallied from a shocking 1-0 Friday night loss to SWAC tournament champion Jackson State and remained perfect this season when coming off a loss. “He gave our hitters a chance to settle in. ... I firmly believe in these hitters, and I know they’re going to pick us up when we need them.”
The Cajuns (54-8) needed them after being shut out Friday for the first time this season, and they delivered early to the tune of three hits that pushed across a first-inning run. Baserunning may have cost them more in that inning, but Strentz made sure that wasn’t a problem in the second when his line-drive shot over the left-field wall scored Chase Compton and Seth Harrison in front of him.
“The big lick Mike got was huge,” Robichaux said “We didn’t get the big hit (Friday) night, but not only did we get the timely hit (Saturday), we hit it out of the ballpark. That helped us wash off the previous night’s stench.”
The Cajuns still face the difficult task of winning three more games in two days to take the regional title and advance to a host position in the super regional round. They will face Jackson State, which lost 3-1 to Mississippi State on Saturday night, at 1 p.m. Sunday. The winner of that game will play Mississippi State at 6 p.m. Sunday. UL-Lafayette would have to beat the Bulldogs twice — including an if-necessary matchup Monday — to claim the regional crown.
The third-seeded Aztecs (42-21) never recovered after ace righthander Bubba Derby (8-4) gave up six hits and five earned runs before exiting in the second inning. In all, the Cajuns worked four SDSU pitchers for 15 hits and forced them into 191 pitches.
“We got down early, and we couldn’t recover,” Aztecs acting coach Mark Martinez said. “We left a pitch up and (Strentz) handled it, and suddenly we’re down 5-0.”
That was enough for Baranik (11-1), the Sun Belt Pitcher of the Year. He gave up an RBI triple to Brad Haynal in the fourth inning and a second run on a groundout in the fifth; other than that, only two Aztecs reached third base. He walked one in a 110-pitch effort.
“Our big thing is to stick to the same routine, week to week and day to day,” Baranik said. “This one worked out better than (Friday) night. ... It was great to pitch with the lead right off the bat; that got the fans into it.”
The Cajuns made several stellar defensive plays, three of them by third baseman Ryan Leonards. The biggest came in the seventh, when the Aztecs got back-to-back hits from Spencer Thornton and Evan Potter with one out, and SDSU center fielder Greg Allen rocketed a line drive toward the hole on the left side off reliever Matt Plitt. Leonards made a diving grab and started a double play that ended the inning.
“I might still be pitching if I had Ryan playing third base,” Robichaux said.
An earlier defensive play was just as huge. Aztecs second baseman Tim Zier reached second on a one-out error in the bottom of the first, and Ty France lined a single to center. Harrison came up throwing and retired Zier at the plate for the second out.
“That was a big momentum shift in our direction,” said Leonards, one of five Cajuns with multiple hits. “That kept them off the board and let us keep the lead. Everything else just fell into place.”
Tyler Girouard’s RBI single gave UL-Lafayette the early 1-0 lead, and Strentz drilled a two-out, 3-2 pitch over the left-field wall for a 4-0 lead. Blake Trahan added an RBI single later in the inning that scored Leonards for the fifth run and chased Derby.
Harrison’s RBI triple and Dylan Butler’s squeeze bunt yielded a 7-1 lead in the fifth, and RBI singles by Caleb Adams and Harrison added two more runs in the sixth off reliever Cody Thompson.
“Our aggression doesn’t change,” Harrison said. “We had a little better approach today. ... We were just looking to take care of business.”
Still, the Cajuns have a long way to go.
“We understand the road we have now,” Baranik said “It’s not going to be easy.”
Robichaux did not commit to a starter for Sunday’s first game. Senior lefty Cody Boutte (8-0) has been UL-Lafayette’s third starter most of the season.
“It’s up in the air,” Robichaux said. “We have a longer road to travel, but we’re lucky that we had some games that tested our bullpen the last two or three weeks of the season. That gave them some experience, and we’re going to need them.”