Cajuns travel to Houston to boost their NCAA tournament résumé _lowres

Advocate Photo by BRAD KEMP University of Louisiana at Lafayette Brian Mills hits a three run home run against the University of Texas at Arlington during game three at Clay Gould Ballpark Sunday May 1, 3016 in Arlington, Tx.. UL defeated UTA 19-6 in seven innings.

HOUSTON — They’re facing their biggest weekend series of the season, a three-game set at South Alabama that could determine the Sun Belt Conference champion and maybe even an NCAA regional host opportunity.

So why schedule a replacement midweek game, on a four-hour road trip, against a solid team like Houston’s Cougars?

For Louisiana-Lafayette coach Tony Robichaux, it’s about preparing for the postseason.

“Wednesday will be good for us,” Robichaux said of the 5 p.m. contest at Houston’s Schroeder Park. “It’s a good RPI game, it’s a chance for a road RPI win, and we get to go to another stadium in front of another crowd that’s against us. But mostly, we want to go in there and understand we’re trying to build our RPI.”

The Cajuns (31-17) didn’t schedule the Cougars (27-19) until two weeks ago, not long after a scheduled April 20 home game against McNeese State was rained out. No free dates were available for both the Cajuns and the Cowboys, which would have left UL-Lafayette a game short of its NCAA allotment.

The Cougars will return the game at Moore Field next season, but the more immediate impact of the series comes in the RPI rankings. UL-Lafayette was 16th in last week’s RPI but slipped to No. 21 entering this week despite taking two of three games from Sun Belt foe Appalachian State — a team in the bottom 20 percent of the RPI nationally.

Houston is at No. 92 in the RPI, but that’s still nearly 200 points ahead of Appalachian State’s ranking last week. And the Cajuns will get an RPI boost from the Friday-Sunday series at South Alabama, which itself fell from No. 32 to No. 39 this week after losing two of three to Georgia Southern over the weekend.

Even though UL-Lafayette has the higher RPI, the Cajuns trail South Alabama by three games in the league standings entering the weekend series.

“Both these teams will have their crowd, so we’ll have to deal with that,” Robichaux said. “You can’t be a champion by sitting at home. We have to take care of the Wednesday game and then refocus for the weekend.”

Schroeder Park provided a point of focus for the Cajuns at the end of last season. After surviving five elimination games in four days to win the Sun Belt tournament, UL-Lafayette was sent to the Houston regional and won there, beating Rice twice and Houston once to advance to the NCAA super regional for the second straight year.

Evan Guillory (4-4, 3.58), the starter and winner in the regional-clinching win over Rice, will as usual get the midweek call for the Cajuns. The sophomore right-hander, who has started 10 midweek games this season, made his first Sun Belt appearance of the season in Friday’s 7-0 win over Appalachian State, striking out seven in a three-inning relief outing.

Guillory likely won’t log too many innings against the Cougars. Robichaux said he wants the sophomore available in a similar role at South Alabama this weekend.

“That was good for him and for us, to keep his rhythm going into his next start,” Robichaux said. “No doubt he may have a shortened start this week and be available in the pen this weekend. We’ll need him, since that one’s for all the marbles.”

Houston faced Rice in a late Tuesday game and planned not to name a starter against the Cajuns until after that game. But as a team, the Cougars have been solid on the mound all season. Houston ranks fourth nationally in team ERA (2.55), is second in the country in strikeout-to-walk ratio and leads the nation in fewest walks allowed per nine innings (1.93). Opponents are hitting only .222 against the Cougars.

That could be trouble for a Cajuns team that showed signs of hitting life over the past two weekends after a frightening stretch (16 hits in four games), but struggled once again in the final two Appalachian State games. UL-Lafayette had six hits in a 6-1 Saturday loss and seven in Sunday’s 4-1 win when the Cajuns scored three times thanks to three straight bunts in the eighth inning.