LAFAYETTE — The Louisiana-Lafayette baseball team faces a very different scenario this week at the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
The top-seeded Ragin’ Cajuns (37-19) take a six-game winning streak into Wednesday’s 7:30 p.m. first-round game against Arkansas State in San Marcos, Texas. UL-Lafayette has won eight straight Sun Belt series as it seeks a third straight league tournament title.
The Cajuns were the nation’s top-ranked team in two polls two years ago when they won the league tournament. Last season, UL-Lafayette lost its first tournament game to Texas State, then had to win five straight games to capture the title.
Coach Tony Robichaux would like to use 2014 as a model, when the Cajuns won four straight games.
“You’d like to not expend so much energy,” he said. “It’s going to be hot, and you’ve got so many teams that have to win that tournament to get to postseason. They’re all going to come with it. You have to learn to win many different ways. Last year was just another way, since we had to overcome some adversity to become a champion.”
The Cajuns were one of those teams that needed to win last year’s tournament in Troy, Alabama, to keep their season alive. If UL-Lafayette hadn’t beaten top-seeded South Alabama 5-1 in the extra-innings title game, the Cajuns’ run through the NCAA tournament’s Houston regional to a berth in the Baton Rouge super regional against LSU wouldn’t have happened.
There’s a different goal for this week’s double-elimination event, with the possibility of hosting in the regional round providing extra incentive.
“Teams that were up there for a regional are dropping, and now we’re in the conversation,” said sophomore pitcher Gunner Leger (6-3, 2.09 ERA), who is slated to start Wednesday. “I know for us to stay in that conversation we have to have a good conference tournament. Our guys know that, especially our seniors. … They don’t want anything more than to have more games at home and let the fans be part of that.
“Back in 2014 when they hosted, the city blew up. It was really a big deal. We want that, and we’re going to fight for that, and that can happen.”
Robichaux isn’t taking anything for granted, and he said he’d breathe easier during Monday’s bracket announcement if his squad claimed the league’s automatic bid as the tournament champion.
“You don’t know if your name’s going to come up,” he said. “You can make that assumption, but what happens all around the country, you don’t know who’s going to sneak up and win other conferences and start to eat up more and more at-large bids. I don’t think you go in there with any backup plan.
“We want to go in there and see how high we can get our RPI, win that thing and then see if we can host. That’s our ultimate goal, and there’s only one way we’re going to do that: You’ve got to go win this thing.”
The Cajuns took two of three games from Arkansas State (27-27) in the regular season, but the Red Wolves won the Friday night opener of that series 7-6. ASU jumped in front 7-0, collecting five hits and five runs off Leger in the first four innings, but UL-Lafayette came back with 5-2 and 6-1 wins in the final two games. The Cajuns allowed only six hits and one earned run in those final two games combined.
“Their record doesn’t show it, but they’re not a bad team,” Leger said of Arkansas State. “They have some good hitters.”
“I never worry about the other teams,” Robichaux said. “I only worry about us. Someone else has to tell me who’s in the bracket with us. The one good thing is we don’t have to start someone on a Wednesday and restart him again over the weekend. We’ve got more pitching this time.”
The Cajuns enter the tournament leading the Sun Belt and in the nation’s top 20 in ERA (3.18), and they also are seventh nationally in hits allowed per game (7.53) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.23).
Leger will square off with A-State senior right-hander Cody Jackson (2-4, 4.71), who took the loss in the 6-1 finale between the teams in early April despite allowing only two hits and one earned run in 5.2 innings.
Should they win the opener, the Cajuns will play the late game Thursday against the Troy-Texas State winner, and that could be an advantage or a disadvantage because of weather. Predicted rain on each of the tournament’s first three days could push back the schedule, but Robichaux said playing out of the heat of the day will be a benefit — especially for starting catcher Nick Thurman, who has caught every pitch of the team’s 56-game schedule.
“One year when we won the tournament, we kept winning at night,” he said. “We’d rest all day and play at night. Our issue is getting into those turnaround games in the heat; that’s what can catch Thurman.
“Staying injury-free is one thing, but if he goes down because of a heat issue, he’s got to come out for safety’s sake, so it’s good that we have that night game.”