Trying to gauge how the UL-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns baseball team will fare this season is a bit of a tricky proposition.
On one hand, there’s every reason to believe coach Tony Robichaux’s club will be able to surpass last year’s frustrating offensive production, which included a .242 team batting average with only 29 home runs and a .348 slugging percentage.
There’s also an argument that the pitching staff will feature more than three pitchers with ERAs under 4.71.
On the other hand, the solution for most of those haunting pitching issues from last season is either a first-year Division I player or one coming off a season of injuries.
UL-Lafayette baseball coach Tony Robichaux has been through the final preparations for an upcoming college baseball season many times over the…
And then there’s that nagging reminder of how critical injuries can derail plans in a hurry — much as they did last spring, when ace pitcher Gunner Leger missed the entire season and senior catcher Handsome Monica got hurt on the first weekend.
“I think we’re going to have to play ourselves into what we can be,” Robichaux said of his team’s outlook. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to just script it out and say, this is it.
“There’s going to be a lot of moving parts until we kind of start to shape things.”
The truth is that last season was a struggle for the Cajuns, who were 34-25 overall and 18-12 in Sun Belt play. The defense was superb, but the little else was. The good news is a large group of newcomers gained valuable experience, providing the reasonable expectation of an upgrade for a team that hasn't reached the NCAA regionals since 2016.
“Guys make big jumps in one year,” Robichaux said. “I’ve seen guys around our league who hit .220 and .190 the year before and then (the next) year were All-Sun Belt Conference players. They can make big jumps in a year. A lot of it is the maturity factor. The difference-maker from last year to this year is their maturity.”
For instance, shortstop Hayden Cantrelle (.287, 4 HRs, 22 RBIs) was good last year, but certainly has a higher ceiling. The Cajuns also expect more from sophomore third baseman Jonathan Windham (.171, 1 HR, 17 RBIs) and junior designated hitter Todd Lott (.246, 3 HRs, 8 RBIs), to name a few.
“I’ve already seen a big difference in Cantrelle and Lott and all of them,” Robichaux said. “There’s been in a big difference.”
No college baseball player in the nation is relishing the arrival of opening day more than Gunner Leger.
The returning mainstays are Cantrelle, senior Hunter Kasuls (.250, 5 HRs, 49 RBIs) at second base, senior Gavin Bourgeois (.311, 3 HRs, 38 RBIs) in left field, Daniel Lahare (.321, 4 HRs, 21 RBIs) at first base and Monica behind the plate.
Much of that will be determined by the health of Lahare and Monica. Robichaux said there’s no expectation for Monica being an everyday catcher.
When he doesn’t catch, he could play first or designated hitter. If Lahare isn’t available at first base, Monica would likely be the Plan B there, and catcher would be manned by senior Cole McKinnon or junior Sebastian Toro.
“The middle infield is easy — Cantrelle and Kasuls, that’s easy — but there’s going to be other moving parts,” Robichaux said. “Third base with (O’Neal) Lochridge and Windham is going to be moving from time to time. And there’s going to be guys who can come off the bench and play very good defense.
“We hope we platoon because we’re getting a hitter and a defender maybe, as compared to moving parts because we’re not solving a hole. That’s what you don’t want. You want to be able to solve an issue if you can.”
Platooning could also come some in the outfield as well, where a pair of former St. Thomas More standouts are prime candidates to fill openings with Brennan Breaux in center field and Orynn Veillon in right.
By the time I showed up on the scene at Louisiana-Lafayette's Tigue Moore Field, it was only four years removed from the big game.
Where the Cajuns clearly need improvement is on the mound.
Leger is expected to be the Friday night starter, although he’s going to have a tough act to follow after the surprise season Colten Schmidt (7-0, 2.45 ERA, 106.1 IP, 83 H) enjoyed a year ago.
But while developing a weekend rotation is always a major early-season topic, Robichaux appears more focused on constructing a bullpen these days.
“The middle innings of a ballgame is always the toughest innings,” Robichaux said. “They’re the toughest innings for a starting pitcher because they’re seeing you now for the third or fourth time, so those middle innings are very, very critical.
“Our No. 1 goal here is, we pitch and play defense against the three-run inning. That’s what we do. Our goal is to pitch away from it, defend against it and then hit towards it."
For the middle and back innings to treat the Cajuns kinder this season, it figures to be a two-step process.
Take a position-by-position look at the Cajuns on opening day.
One, getting the returning pitchers to improve. Topping that list are senior Grant Cox (1-1, 4.71), sophomore Austin Perrin (3-5, 5.73), sophomore Brock Batty (2-1, 6.17), sophomore Michael Leaumont (1-0, 8.31) and junior Caleb Armstrong (0-0, 8.53).
“I think they’ve all gotten better,” Robichaux said. “Each other is a different type of arm, but all of those guys pitched well in the fall. You can kind of tell their age. We’re going to need that from that group.
“Armstrong is better because of that surgery. He gives us somebody underneath coming out of the bullpen. Cox went out and threw well this summer in Alaska. Mike (Leaumont) has thrown well this fall. Perrin and Batty have thrown well this fall. Both of those guys have thrown well in big games against Mississippi State and Kentucky in the Minute Maid Classic.”
The other variable on the mound is junior Jack Burk (3-6, 5.43), who could theoretically end up being anything from the No. 2 starter to the closer by the end of the season.
“He’s throwing well and he’s healthy right now,” Robichaux said. “If he can stay healthy and sustain a little higher workload, that could really help us. That (bullpen) is a possibility, yes. He could literally close, or pick us up the eighth and ninth, or the seventh, eighth and ninth. We might have a few guys who can do that instead of having just a closer.”
Second, there’s an influx of promising freshman pitchers ready to make an immediate impact, including Blake Schultz, Connor Cooke and Chance Stone.
UL junior Justin Miller, who had a game-high 13 rebounds in Friday's 76-72 win over Georgia State, said the team won the game for coach Bob Marlin and his coaching staff.
“The ultimate key to everything is if our freshman arms can build some depth with young arms — and not have just one or two to step up, but all the ones we’re counting on,” Robichaux said. “We’ve got more lefties coming out of the pen than we’ve ever had. That can help us.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a situation where we can grab a starter and say, ‘Hey, get us to the seventh on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.’ That’s going to take a little bit. We’re going to have to pitch some people early … two innings here and two innings there.”