Tony Robichaux tells his UL-Lafayette players all the time to save their best at-bat for the biggest moment.
Hayden Cantrelle was obviously listening to his coach Thursday night, and because of that the Ragin’ Cajuns are one win away from capturing the Sun Belt Conference West Division title.
Cantrelle sent a 2-1 pitch from UL-Monroe closer Keegan Curtis over the left-field wall in the bottom of the 10th inning to give the Cajuns a pulsating 4-3 win in the opener of a three-game Sun Belt series at Russo Park.
The win, coupled with Little Rock’s 7-6 loss to Arkansas State, gave UL-Lafayette (31-23, 16-12) a 1½-game lead over the Trojans with two games to go in the regular season. The Cajuns need a win either Friday or Saturday to claim the division title and the No. 2 seed in the Sun Belt tournament that begins Tuesday at Russo Park.
Cantrelle had a first-inning double and an eighth-inning triple but was left stranded both times, part of 14 runners the Cajuns left on base. Six days earlier, the true freshman tied a UL-Lafayette record with five hits at Texas State.
“He’s been so good for us all year,” Robichaux said. “We said in the fall that he was going to play way above his chronological age, but what he did tonight against good stuff (from Curtis) was pretty good. You can’t pull that; you have to drive it the other way and let him put the power into it.”
Curtis had come on in the ninth and hadn’t given up a hit, striking out two, including Kole McKinnon, to open the bottom of the 10th before Cantrelle’s game-winner.
Cantrelle’s second homer of the year might not have meant as much had Dylan Moore not pitched out of big trouble in the top of the 10th inning. Moore, who replaced Cajuns starter Colten Schmidt in the ninth and retired three in a row, was touched for back-to-back one-out hits in the 10th including a double by Johnny DeLaCruz that appeared to give ULM the lead. But Turner Francis, who had his third hit of the game just before DeLaCruz’s double, was held at third base.
Moore intentionally walked Chad Bell to load the bases, then fanned Will Daniels and got Brendan Jordan to look at a called third strike to keep the game knotted 3-3.
“That’s just him,” Robichaux said of Moore (4-3), the Sun Belt’s all-time leader in career saves. “I’m so glad for him. He’s fought a torn shoulder muscle all year and the season started rough for him, but he’s come back out and re-energized us and made us believe in him again.”
ULM (23-29, 10-18) has yet to lock up a spot in the 10-team conference tournament; the Warhawks are tied for ninth in the overall standings with Friday’s 6 p.m. game and Saturday’s 3 p.m. finale remaining. The loss was the Warhawks' 23rd straight to the Cajuns dating back to 2012.
UL-Monroe used four first-inning hits to take a 2-0 lead off Schmidt, with Jordan’s two-out, two-run single plating DeLaCruz and Bell. The Cajuns evened it at 2-2 in the second against ULM starter Trey Jeans when Zach LaFleur doubled with one out, Jonathan Windham walked, LaFleur scored on a throwing error and McKinnon plated Windham with a double.
McKinnon then gave UL-Lafayette a 3-2 lead with his third homer of the year, a one-out shot to left field, but ULM tied the game again in the fifth on singles by Francis, Bell and Daniels.
Schmidt retired the final 10 batters he faced, but UL-Lafayette left the bases loaded in the fifth, thanks in part to a critical baserunning error, and left two on base in the sixth, eighth and ninth innings against three different ULM pitchers.
“We left too many on base and we had a critical mistake, one that would have won the game for us,” Robichaux said. “We played extras because of that. We have to be better baserunning and getting timely hitting, and make contact at critical situations.”
Junior lefthander Hogan Harris (4-1) will start Friday for the Cajuns against ULM righthander Chase Beal (3-7). UL-Lafayette will honor its seniors before the game.