No college baseball player in the nation is relishing the arrival of opening day more than Gunner Leger.
The UL-Lafayette senior left-hander, former Sun Belt Conference Pitcher of the Year and a second-team All-American knows how close he was to never taking the mound for another one.
Leger’s career numbers are impressive. He has an ERA under 3.00 for three straight years, including a stellar 1.97 mark in 2017 when he was 10-2 and gave up only 20 earned runs all season. He’s 23-10 in a Ragin’ Cajuns career that ranks among the best in program history.
But the more important numbers now are the 630 “X” marks on his wall calendar. When Leger takes the mound Friday against Texas at Russo Park, it will have been that many days since he threw a pitch in a live game.
“It’s been a long time,” Leger said. “Too long.”
Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux agrees. He believes the fifth-year senior will be ready.
“You don’t forget how to pitch,” Robichaux said. “Pro guys that go on the DL, they never forget how to pitch. And Gunner’s a professional in the way he approaches it.”
There are other important numbers for Leger going into the opener at 6:30 p.m. Friday. The No. 2 indicates how many surgeries he had in a three-month period in 2017, and reconstructive “Tommy John” surgery was the lesser concern of the two.
More numbers? Try 15 twice — as in the 15-inch long, 15-millimeter-wide metal rod that runs from his left hip to his kneecap. It was the result of, and the solution to, the removal of a cyst that had progressed from a high school inconvenience to a career-threatening and lifestyle-changing problem.
“The process he had to go through, the peaks and valleys,” said father Tim Leger, a Lafayette native now back home as recruiting coordinator and assistant coach for the Cajuns football team. “He basically lost the whole use of his left side.”
The younger Leger downplays it now. But 18 months ago, there were real questions if he’d ever walk normally again, and the horrific word “cancer” was on the minds of a family so thoroughly entwined in the UL-Lafayette athletic program that his grandfather had Cajuns season tickets.
“Honestly, it was easier and not all that I thought it was going to be,” Gunner said. “The doctors that performed the surgeries are some of the best in the world, and I was lucky enough to see them. Arm surgeries like that are much more commonplace, but the leg was unique.”
A cyst in Leger’s left femur had been an issue since his days as a standout at Barbe High in Lake Charles, but that was put on the backburner near the end of the 2017 season, when he began to have arm issues. Leger finished that year ranked in the top 20 nationally in ERA, but he knew something wasn’t right.
“I started having tightness in my forearm, but what was tough for me was that I didn’t have anything to compare it with, and I could still control the ball,” he said. “I could make all my pitches and I was getting outs. It was tough in my head to realize something could really be wrong, when I was pitching the best in my career for the first half of the season.”
Leger had a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his throwing elbow and had corrective surgery in July. During that recovery, a biopsy on his leg showed that lingering cyst had grown in length to almost a foot, from his hip to his knee. It was benign, but its rarity required a complex surgery and the insertion of the metal rod into his femur.
“That X-ray and MRI, it was a disturbing image,” Leger said. “But what was worse after the surgery, you’re just sitting around and you have a lot of time on your hands to sit and think — especially after the leg surgery. A long time to process things. For about a month I was pouting and in a bad place. Not depressed, because that’s excessive. But I wasn’t happy.
“I’d never not been able to play, so that was a learning experience. That’s the toughest thing I’ve ever had to deal with: not really knowing if I can come back and be the person I was. That’s still there. But it’s made me better.”
Robichaux serves as his own pitching coach, and he’s seen how much physical work Leger has put in to reclaim his role as the Cajuns’ Friday night starter. But the 25-year veteran coach never worried about Leger’s work ethic or mental approach.
“He’s a perfectionist, and his preparation is always through the roof,” Robichaux said. “The one thing he always gives you is he’s prepared, ready to give you the best he has. We’ve tried to knock the rust off in intrasquad and he’s looked good, now it’s ... for him to understand that he’s going to get better as he goes.
“The thing about him, he’s like handling a grown man. You talk to him and he’ll tell you how he feels and he’s not lying. He’s such a veteran that you don’t have to worry about him getting back on his seven-day routine.”
That routine was refined during his 2015 freshman season when Leger went 6-5 with a 2.99 ERA in 18 starts for the Cajuns’ Sun Belt champions and NCAA super regional team. One year later, he was 7-3 with a 2.26 mark when UL-Lafayette again won the Sun Belt and hosted an NCAA regional, setting the stage for his standout junior year.
Leger was still on crutches when his father got the opportunity to return home in December 2017 as part of football coach Billy Napier’s new staff. That made things easier on the family and kept Leger near his father, who has the rare insight of himself being a fourth-round baseball draft pick and spending three seasons in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.
“If he has the opportunity to go out there opening night, in a place he loves to pitch, in front of fans that he loves, it’s going to be really special,” Tim Leger said. “I’m not sure there’s anything he likes more than standing on the mound on Friday night.”