MOBILE, Ala. — The aces lived up to the billing in a clash of the top teams in the Sun Belt Conference. But, in the end, they didn’t factor into how the game was decided.
That came down to the bullpen, the Louisiana-Lafayette defense and South Alabama’s aggression. And with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the Jaguars’ aggression paid off with a 3-2 win against the visiting Ragin’ Cajuns. It was a result that could’ve been markedly different.
“If we just make a defensive play, we win 2-0,” Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux said.
Right-hander Eric Carter (3-2) picked up two quick outs to start the ninth for the Cajuns (31-19, 16-9), but things went south when he walked No. 9 hitter Ben Gann. The Jaguars (37-14, 20-5) subbed him out for pinch-runner Dylan Hardy, then did what they’ve done so well this year.
South Alabama entered the weekend with 32 more steals than anyone else in the league. It wasn’t a surprise to see Hardy in motion with two outs in the ninth. But Nick Thurman’s throw sailed wide and into right field, allowing Hardy to scoot to third base.
That set up Travis Swaggerty’s game-winning single into right field, igniting a South Alabama celebration on the field.
The game-ending drama covered up what was a phenomenal performance by South Alabama’s Kevin Hill and the Cajuns’ Gunner Leger. The pair had combined for some memorable head-to-head matchups before, and this one might have been their best.
Leger was phenomenal, allowing five hits in seven innings of two-run ball, and it would’ve looked much better had it not been for a fielding gaffe in the first by second baseman Stefan Trosclair.
With two outs and runners at first and second, Matt Bolger hit a ball into foul territory on the first base side. First baseman Alex Pinero was tracking it, but Trosclair called him off. The ball bounced off the heel of Trosclair’s glove and to the turf.
“What you’ve got to do is try not to give them anything free, and we gave them something free early,” Robichaux said. “You can’t give people things for free when you’re going to play this kind of (low-scoring) game.”
On the next pitch, Bolger yanked a double down the left-field line to score the tying run. On the pitch after that, catcher Jared Barnes beat out a bouncer to second for an infield single, which brought one more run home.
“I’ve got to make a better pitch,” Leger said. “If that doesn’t happen, we win the game.”
Leger finished the first in a 2-1 hole. Adding injury to insult, he had thrown 27 pitches, which is about a quarter of his previous season-high pitch count of 109.
But he buckled down in a big way. He retired 12 straight batters after Barnes’ infield single in the first, and he did it in an expeditious manner. He needed 10 pitches to get through the second and eight to get through the third.
Still, Leger needed 100 pitches to get through six. When Robichaux sent him back out to start the seventh, the plan was to have him pitch to left-hander Danny Martinez and get out of the game.
Leger worked around a one-out walk to retire the side on three ground balls in the seventh. He finished the game throwing a career-high 117 pitches.
“All year long, we’ve been under the 100-pitch mark for that reason right there,” Robichaux said. “He went out and he gutted it out for us; we just should’ve got this game for him.”
Hill couldn’t find his dominant stuff early, giving up six Cajuns hits in the first three innings, but he settled into cruise control after that. During one stretch between the third and fifth innings, Hill retired six of eight batters via strikeout.
Hill lasted eight innings, allowing eight hits and two earned runs while striking out seven. The Cajuns made do with what little opportunity they had, going 2-for-5 with runners in scoring position, which doesn’t include two nicely played sacrifice bunts.
The Cajuns are now in a must-win situation. If South Alabama wins the series, it wins the Sun Belt regular-season title. The Cajuns will send freshman right-hander Nick Lee (6-1, 3.02 ERA) to the mound Saturday. The Jaguars counter with righty Randy Bell (5-1, 2.97).
Lee is the usual Sunday starter, but Robichaux said Lee gives the team its best chance to even the series.
“Now we’re down one, we want him to go out and give us a chance,” Robichaux said. “His changeup is good against all these lefties.”