Nobody on the current Louisiana-Lafayette baseball team has swung a bat or thrown a pitch against Rice, but Ragin’ Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux is plenty familiar with the Owls and knows the challenge his team faces this weekend.
“They’re a good baseball team, and you know they’re going to be well-coached,” Robichaux said of his team’s opponent in Friday’s opening game at the NCAA tournament’s Houston regional. “They’re going to throw out some very good arms at us.”
The Ragin’ Cajuns (39-21) will play Rice (35-20) for the 25th time in Friday’s 2:30 p.m. game. Seventeen of those have come since coach Wayne Graham took over the Owls in 1992, and 11 have come since Robichaux took over the UL-Lafayette program in 1995. Five of those meetings have come in postseason play — in a 1999 super regional and the 2010 Austin regional — with the Owls taking three of those games.
The teams mirror each other in their pitching numbers, with both ranking among the nation’s leaders in key categories. Rice is 36th nationally in ERA (3.30), and UL-Lafayette is 43rd (3.36). Both teams are in the top 25 in strikeout-to-walk ratio, with Rice 21st (2.80) and the Cajuns 22nd (2.75). Pitching is the biggest reason both teams are in the top 50 in winning percentage entering postseason play.
“You’re going to have to pitch and play good defense; that’s the number one priority,” Robichaux said. “I was just glad that we faced the arms that we did against South Alabama both here and in the conference tournament, because that’s going to be similar to what we face against Rice.”
The Cajuns lost two of three to USA in the final home series, falling 5-0 and 4-3 before winning a 3-2 finale, but they beat the Jaguars 5-1 in 12 innings Sunday to take the Sun Belt tournament title and earn their third straight NCAA tournament trip.
“(Rice is) a lot like South Alabama,” Robichaux said. “They play behind that pitching. Pitching can make you good ... when you keep people down to one and two runs a game, it takes the pressure off your offense.”
The teams couldn’t be more different offensively.
The Owls have hit only 16 home runs all season. That’s the same number as Cajuns second baseman Stefan Trosclair, who led the Sun Belt and is only three off the national lead of 19 entering the regional.
Trosclair’s 16th of the season was a 12th-inning grand slam Sunday that snapped a 1-1 tie in the league tournament final.
UL-Lafayette led the Sun Belt in homers (56), slugging (.426) and runs (365).
Still, Rice ranked 22nd nationally with a .299 batting average and decidedly outhit the Cajuns (.276) during the season. The teams’ run production during the year was virtually equal, with UL-Lafayette leading the Sun Belt in runs per game at 6.1 and Rice at 5.8.
Two weeks after Houston was hit by what was called a “500-year flood event,” the city was swamped by another torrent of rain Monday. Areas on the west side of town received more than 4 inches of rain in an hour Monday night.
The storm has left at least four dead, and Houston Mayor Annise Parker said more than 500 water rescues were performed Monday in the city as 50,000 power customers remained without power Tuesday.
“You have to pray for all those people,” Robichaux said. “I saw the pictures. ... I think they got 12 inches of rain yesterday. The guy handling all our rooming at the Hyatt, he couldn’t even get to work this morning.”
One reporter jokingly asked Robichaux whether he had been contacted by the three Houston-area teams in the regional (UH, Rice and Houston Baptist) about coming to a drier Lafayette to play at Moore Field.
“I don’t know if they would do that,” Robichaux joked. “I sure don’t want to start rumors. One of our players saw something about moving to Minute Maid Park, but I know the Astros are playing the White Sox at home this weekend.”
Ironically, the last time UL-Lafayette played in a regional at UH, the event was hampered by weather. The Cajuns and host Cougars started their 1999 Sunday regional final game at 2:25 p.m., but it didn’t finish it until 11:14 p.m. because of two rain delays that lasted more than 51/2 hours.
UL-Lafayette posted a 19-8 win in that marathon to earn its first super regional berth.