Small ball leads Cajuns past Appalachian State 4-1 for series victory _lowres

Advocate staff photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK -- University of Louisiana at Lafayette catcher Nick Thurman throws an Appalachian State runner out at first in an NCAA baseball game Sunday, May 8, 2016, at M.L. "Tigue" Moore Field in Lafayette, La.

LAFAYETTE — There was a moment this year when Louisiana-Lafayette sophomore pitcher Evan Guillory put his slider grip on the baseball before he even looked in at the sign from his battery mate Nick Thurman.

Guillory looked in for the sign, but he didn’t really have to. He offered a quick nod of the head and fired the pitch in to Thurman’s mitt.

That particular moment is more remarkable for its predictability than the fact that it happened. The far more infrequent occurrences are the times Guillory and his fellow pitchers shake off Thurman’s signs. They’ve all been studying the same page of the same book for a while now.

“We have that kind of connection,” said Guillory, who might as well have been speaking for the whole staff. “It makes me extremely comfortable having him back there.”

Entering this weekend’s series against UL-Monroe, likely Thurman’s final series at M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field, the Cajuns young pitching staff has compiled a Sun Belt-best 3.23 ERA this season. If the season ended Thursday, that would be the lowest ERA by a Cajuns team since the 1989 team put together a 2.81 ERA.

The pitchers, deservedly so, have taken the lion’s share of the credit. They are young and talented and putting together one of the best years in school history.

But ask those pitchers or their coach, Tony Robichaux, and they’ll tell you the man that deserves that credit is the one calling and receiving those pitches.

“He’s one of my top three game-callers that I’ve had in my 30 years of coaching,” Robichaux said. “He understands back and forth, he understands plus and minus, he understands rhythm and tempo.

“You can’t have a good pitching staff without a good catcher. At the end of the day, the catcher drives the pitching staff. You might have 10-to-15 pitchers, but the one constant is the catcher.”

Constant is a good word to describe Thurman.

It speaks to his studious nature when it comes to deeply understanding Robichaux’s pitching system and how to play it against opposing hitters.

“We learn as the game goes along,” Guillory said. “He’ll be like, ‘This batter did this on this pitch, so the next time we’re going to get him this way.’ Or before a game he’ll look through the scouting report and say, ‘These hitters have these tendencies, so we’ll work them this way.’

“And, you know, he knows more about them then I do, so I’ll go with what he says.”

Constant also describes his presence. Hot or cold, rain or shine, doubleheaders be damned, Thurman has been behind the plate for every single pitch the Cajuns have thrown this season.

That’s not to say the Cajuns wanted that to happen. It was borne out of necessity by a lingering injury that shelved freshman Ryne Ray for the 2016 season. Thurman has to be out there because the Cajuns don’t have a viable alternative.

“I accept it, definitely,” Thurman said. “Every now and then I just kind of think back and say, ‘Maybe I’ll come to the field and maybe Ryne will get really lucky and he’ll just be cleared and be good to go today.’ Most of the time, that’s just not going to happen. I just kind of bear the burden and do whatever I have to.”

It’s led the Cajuns to be very cautious with their senior catcher.

He doesn’t catch bullpens during the week and rarely gets into a crouch unless it’s game day. About the only needless catching Thurman does, curiously, is to sometimes catch for mid-game promotions where a fan tries to guess his or her pitch speed.

“We try and take care of him, keep him safe,” said sophomore pitcher Gunner Leger, before wryly adding, “Put a bubble around him.”

He also fastidiously takes care of his body. Team trainer Brian Davis personally stretches Thurman before every game. Thurman takes regular trips to the ice bath, a ritual he’s now enjoying thanks to the new facilities that eliminated the old system of having someone just dump ice all over his lower body while he sat in a tub.

Despite all the care he’s taken, catching all those innings has taken a toll on Thurman this season. He knows he’s slow, which he says is because his legs feel like cement blocks.

He also generates much of his swing power with his lower body. Though he’s enjoying a solid season at the plate – a .290 average with a team-best 13 doubles – he feels he’d be much better with a day of rest here and there.

But would he take a day off? Spend a day over at first base, where he could get out of his crouch and roam free? That’s unlikely.

“I’m involved on every pitch, so I don’t know if that means that if I got to another position I would lose my mind because I don’t know what to do with myself,” Thurman said. “I don’t really like standing around. So being squatted back there, even though it does take a toll, I actually prefer it to just standing at a position.

“I feel like my attention is more focused on the game. It forces me to pay attention, learn the game and constantly make adjustments.”

And there lies his true value to the team. Thurman is always watching and looking for new areas to exploit. He’s a human databank processing information for the pitching staff in real time behind the plate.

It’s a skill that the Cajuns are running out of time with. It’s been honed over four years, learning, understanding and applying to game situations, and it’s played a big role in developing the Cajuns pitching staff into what it is today.

“He’s been phenomenal,” Robichaux said. “He’s going to be sorely, sorely missed. He not only understands the game and game calling, but he understands the pitcher and he understands reading hitters. Not everybody can see that, but he can see that.”

That doesn’t sound entirely like skill. It also requires some sort of baseball black magic, like reading the pitcher’s mind when he has a grip on a pitch before you flash him the sign.

“We call it being able to clearly see the invisible,” Robichaux said.