LAFAYETTE — At last week’s Sun Belt Conference tournament, the Louisiana-Lafayette baseball team leaned on Blake Trahan and the bullpen to score its first league tourney title in more than a decade.
On Monday night, it was same story, second verse. And because of that, the Ragin’ Cajuns are on their way to the NCAA tournament’s super regional round for the first time since their only College World Series appearance.
Trahan delivered an RBI single in the top of the ninth to give the Cajuns some breathing room, and Matt Plitt closed the door on Mississippi State in the bottom of the inning as UL-Lafayette took a 5-3 victory before 3,920 raucous fans at M. L. “Tigue” Moore Field.
The top-ranked Cajuns (57-8), who still boast the nation’s best record, will take that mark into next weekend’s super regional play against Ole Miss, which clinched the Oxford regional Monday night with a 3-2 victory over Washington. UL-Lafayette last played in the super regional round in 2000, when it won at South Carolina to advance to Omaha, Nebraska.
Now, the Cajuns will get a chance to make their second CWS trip from their home field. The dates and times for that best-of-three series is expected to be announced Tuesday.
The Cajuns advanced thanks to a fourth straight fast start by the offense after their 1-0 loss to Jackson State in the regional opener. This time, the early surge came via a three-run third inning and an early 4-0 lead before the second-seeded Bulldogs got on the board.
“Coach (Tony Robichaux) says it all the time about getting the three-run inning, and he’s usually right about what he says,” said second baseman Jace Conrad, named the regional’s Most Outstanding Player. “We tried to jump on them early. We hoped it would push things to our benefit, and after that, the pitchers did a great job of keeping our push and getting outs for us.”
“Mississippi State is a tough club, and we knew the pitching we were going to face was outstanding,” said Robichaux, who took UL-Lafayette to its two previous super regional outings in 1999 and 2000. “Our approach at the plate was going to have to be really good, and it was. We faced good arms, but give credit to our fans. ... Having the adrenaline they gave us, really all weekend, was phenomenal.”
The nation’s top power-hitting team was held to seven singles, but the Cajuns had their biggest inning with the benefit of only one single — a two-out RBI hit by Conrad in the third.
Michael Strentz had earlier drawn a one-out walk off Bulldogs starter Lucas Laster and moved up on Ryan Leonards’ grounder. Conrad then laced a 2-0 pitch to right field to score Strentz from second base and give the Cajuns a lead they would never give up.
“There’s not a ton of guys in their lineup that you want to pitch to,” MSU coach John Cohen said. “We didn’t locate that pitch the way we wanted to.”
Laster then issued walks to Blake Trahan and Tyler Girouard to load the bases, and the Bulldogs turned to ace closer Jacob Lindgren, a lefthander who promptly uncorked a wild pitch that scored Conrad. Caleb Adams then drew another walk, and Lindgren threw another pitch that catcher Gavin Collins couldn’t handle, allowing Trahan to score for a 3-0 lead.
UL-Lafayette then added another run without a hit in the next inning when Lindgren hit leadoff hitter Seth Harrison, and a passed ball and another wild pitch moved him to third. One out later, Strentz laid down the third successful squeeze bunt for the Cajuns in the regional, easily scoring Harrison.
The Bulldogs (39-24) struggled to solve UL-Lafayette starter Ryan Wilson (6-0), who allowed one run and four hits through the first six innings.
“We knew it was going to be tough, so we handed the ball to one of the toughest guys on this team,” Robichaux said.
The Bulldogs got a run in the fourth on back-to-back leadoff singles from C.T. Bradford and Brett Pirtle and a one-out sacrifice fly from power-hitting Wes Rea, and Wilson pitched out of trouble in the sixth and got two outs in the seventh before hitting Matthew Britton and walking Seth Heck.
The Cajuns turned to Plitt, who wrapped up two earlier games in the regional, and Bradford and Pirtle promptly went back-to-back again to score Britton and Heck to make it 4-3.
It stayed that way until the ninth, when Conrad was hit by a two-out pitch from Jonathan Holder. Conrad stole second, and Trahan drilled a ground-ball single between shortstop and third for an insurance run.
Plitt then got three straight outs, retiring Pirtle — who was 11-for-16 in the tournament before that final at-bat — on a swinging third strike to end the game.
“I haven’t been a big situation like that outside of last year’s regional,” Plitt said, “but I knew my teammates were behind me. They got your back and that’ll get you through any situation. With our hitters, anything’s possible.”