SAN MARCOS, Texas — Wily Louisiana-Lafayette baseball coach Tony Robichaux has been at this coaching thing for three decades, so he didn’t have a problem dodging the first Gatorade shower.
But the second one …
“They got me on the second one,” he said. “They set me up. … But that means something good has happened, so we’ll take it.”
Make it one happily soaked coach, 10 straight wins, three straight Sun Belt Conference tournament championships and, likely, one more home appearance for the Cajuns, who used a brilliant pitching performance by sophomore right-hander Wyatt Marks and a late offensive surge to beat Georgia Southern 5-0 in the championship game Sunday at Bobcat Ballpark.
With the win came an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. And on Sunday night, the NCAA announced the Cajuns (41-19) are one of 16 hosts for next weekend’s regional play. The full 64-team field, including which three teams will be coming to Lafayette, will be unveiled at 11 a.m. Monday.
Marks (5-6), making his first appearance since May 17, allowed just five base runners while striking out 10 in seven superb innings. He turned the game over to closer Dylan Moore in the eighth, and Moore finished off the final six outs without incident for his 13th save, tying the school record he set last season.
It has been a bit of an up-and-down season for Marks, who saw his spot in the weekend rotation taken by Evan Guillory at the end of the year. But once the Cajuns saw him escape from a jam in the first inning, they figured it would be a good day for Marks. The Eagles had runners on second and third with one out and looked poised for strong start.
“If they were going to score, just let it be one or two (runs) and not let the gates open,” Marks said. “Just try to get a ground ball and get your defense some work.”
But Marks struck out Jordan Wren, who led the tournament with seven RBIs, and got a weak ground ball to second base to end the inning.
“He got out of that jam in the first inning, and from there he just really dominated his opponent and gave us a lot of energy,” Robichaux said.
The Cajuns couldn’t find anything against ace left-hander Evan Challenger in the opening innings; the Eagles ace held the Cajuns hitless for the first 3.2 innings. But he also had thrown 111 pitches in the Eagles’ tournament opener.
“We knew Challenger was going to be good, but he had thrown earlier in the tournament, so that 20-pitch inning really helped us in the first inning,” Robichaux said.
The Cajuns finally found a crack in the fifth, when Brian Mills broke open a scoreless game with a double that he snuck just inside the first base bag, scoring Nick Thurman from second. He was followed to the plate by Joe Robbins, who cracked an RBI single to make it 2-0.
That would be plenty the way the Cajuns were pitching, but they added to it anyway. They tacked on a run in the seventh on Kyle Clement’s bases-loaded sacrifice fly and two more runs in the eighth.
Nick Thurman’s solo home run in the bottom of the eighth capped the day offensively. Thurman finished the tournament batting .313 with six runs and six RBIs, earning the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player honors in the process.
Georgia Southern had one more rally left in it against Marks, picking up a pair of singles in the seventh inning to put runners at the corners with one out. Robichaux had a decision to make: Go to Moore early, or let Marks work out of trouble in a game the Cajuns led 2-0.
He opted to leave Marks in, and the sophomore got the last two outs with the help of Thurman, who threw out C.J. Ballard as he tried to steal second base. Ballard tried to get in a rundown long enough to allow teammate Hunter Thomas to score from third, but Trosclair ran him down while keeping an eye on Thomas.
“That was a big inning, not to let that get away, because we were caught right there a little bit in what we were going to do pitching-wise,” Robichaux said. “We didn’t want (Moore) to go nine outs; we wanted him to go six. That was a critical inning right there.”
The Cajuns set an SBC tournament record for strikeouts (48 in 36 innings) and became the first team in league history to win three straight tournaments.
“It’s pretty special,” Thurman said. “Any time you can make history, your name’s going to be written down. … I think what we did was pretty special, and it’s going to take some work to top it. Next year, we’re going to fight hard to make it four.”