LAFAYETTE — Try telling Tulane, UNO and McNeese State hitters that Matt Hicks shouldn’t be wearing a college baseball uniform, much less pitching for one of the nation’s top three collegiate teams.
That would be as pointless as telling Louisiana-Lafayette’s senior righthander to slow down. That’s not in Hicks’ nature.
Neither is quitting, which might have been the prudent thing to do before the Ragin’ Cajuns’ 2014 season. Given his constant and increasing pain from a degenerative back condition, the continuing effects from a horrific auto accident a decade ago, and the rigors of carrying a double-degree biology and chemistry academic load with a psychology minor, throwing sinking fastballs might have been lower on the priority list.
But that wouldn’t be Matt Hicks, and much of the reason he’s back pitching as a senior is the other 34 players wearing UL-Lafayette jerseys.
“It sounds like a cliche’, but this is the best team chemistry I’ve ever been a part of,” Hicks said, not referring to one degree that he’ll finish with a 3.69 GPA next month. “I’ve never been a part of a team that jell together as well as this team does.”
“Every guy in that clubhouse would run through those walls for that guy,” Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux said of the Bridge City, Texas, product. “They know what he’s been through, they see what he does out here every day. Matt took his mess and turned it into a message.”
He’s delivered the message loud and clear over the past few weeks, despite a complete change in his role on the 37-5 UL-Lafayette squad. In his first three years, Hicks became the Cajuns’ career leader in saves with 16, working in short closer stints in part because of his back and in part because that’s where his team needed him the most.
He had 11 saves last season when UL-Lafayette improved from 23-30 in 2012 to a spot in the NCAA regional finals.
Now he’s a mid-week starter despite being on a strict 50-pitch limit, and in his first three career starts he threw three innings of two-hit, no run ball with one strikeout against Tulane, allowed two hits and no runs in three innings with two strikeouts against UNO, and Tuesday night went five innings and checked McNeese on two hits and no runs with five strikeouts.
He’s now 5-0 with a 1.86 ERA this season, part of a four-year 14-4 record in 90 appearances, but to Hicks, the new role’s not a big deal.
“It feels good to come out and get a start,” he said Tuesday after setting the tone for the 8-0 win over McNeese, “but at the same time, anybody we have can come out here and do what I’m doing. I do like coming out here and maybe give us a little bit of tempo during mid-week, hoping that’ll carry over to the weekend. But that’s anybody on this team ... I have full confidence in them coming out here and do the same thing any day of the week.”
Robichaux disagrees, only because of that tempo. Hicks’ first two three-inning starts were both done in less than 40 minutes. On Tuesday, when he finished the top of his fifth and final inning, the game was only an hour old. Few pitchers on any level of baseball work as rapidly as Hicks.
“When you work fast and throw strikes, the umpires love you and guys love to play defense behind a guy like that,” Robichaux said. “That first inning is so important to set a good tempo, and that’s why we’ve sent Matt out on Tuesdays. He’s only good for about 50 pitches, but how many guys can take 50 pitches and pitch five innings?”
Hicks’ pitch limits are mostly due to spondylosis, a degenerative osteoarthritis of the joints between the spinal vertebrae. Hicks has had that condition since birth, and it didn’t help that he was hit by a car while riding a bicycle at age 12. Eight surgeries followed including removal of a bone from his pelvis and muscles from his stomach to reconstruct one leg. He didn’t walk for a year.
That background may have steered him into medicine (he’s already been accepted into the LSU Dental School beginning this fall), but it also showed Robichaux something about his character — and also the necessity of being careful.
“He knows the seriousness of it,” Robichaux said. “He could throw one pitch and have it be over for him. But he knows his body, and we trust him. He’s very smart, and he’s not going to stretch things out if he can’t. He’s giving us everything he can, but he knows his limits. He came in (Tuesday, after five innings), I asked him how he felt and he said I think that’s enough.”
Moving to a mid-week starting role came after a couple of shaky relief outings early in the season, but it also came at a time that the UL-Lafayette pitching staff had injury issues.
“Sometimes in situations like that, you can flip their brain,” Robichaux said. “We told him we didn’t expect him to throw 100 pitches, just get us off to a good start and we knew he’d do that. The first time he went out and threw three innings, the next day he couldn’t walk, couldn’t carry his bag.”
It’s not like Hicks has never started. In summer league ball with the Acadiana CaneCutters, he started several games and was effective on the mound, if not on the team’s bottom line.
“I watched him throw a CaneCutters game, and he threw nine innings in about 50 minutes,” Robichaux said. “They were concerned that when they started him, they weren’t going to make any money on concessions. The guy just goes out there and gets it. If his back wasn’t where it is, he’d be going the distance a lot and eating some innings up. If you saw the Advil and Aleve he goes through ...”
Tuesday’s win was a rarity for Hicks. He was relatively pain-free on 56 pitches and allowed only three baserunners, and never came close to walking a batter in what was a key victory after a disheartening Sunday loss in a Sun Belt Conference series finale at UT Arlington.
“That’s the best I’ve felt in a long time,” he said. “I’m hoping I can keep that up. We needed a nice night bouncing back off last weekend. It’s baseball and you’re going to lose games, the best teams in the pros lose over a third of their games, but I’m not a big fan of losing teaching you something. Anything you can learn from losing you can learn from winning.”