LAFAYETTE — Senior third baseman Joe Robbins outsmarted his ivy league opponent when he sent a triple into the left-center field gap to break up a tie game in the eighth inning of the Cajuns 5-3 win against Princeton in their opening contest of the NCAA regional round.
Once he gained the mental edge he still had to muscle it, though.
Robbins saw the Princeton (24-20) outfield shading him to the opposite field, and with the way Tigers right-hander Chad Powers (6-4) was hitting his spots against the Cajuns (42-19), he figured that meant a pitch on the outer half of the plate was coming.
“I saw the outfield shift; they shifted me hard,” Robbins said. “I knew it was going to be something on the outer half, so I kind of leaked over a little bit. Luckily it was a curveball I could pull.”
Robbins fully extended his bat to meet the curveball and somehow yanked a ball deep into the left-center field gap. With center fielder Danny Hoy shading him to right field, Robbins raced around the bases, chasing Hunter Kasuls in from second base and giving the Cajuns a 4-3 lead. He then came home to score on Kyle Clement’s sacrifice fly to the second baseman in foul territory.
Sophomore closer Dylan Moore wasn’t about to give that up. He struck out a pair in a perfect ninth inning to break his own school record with his 14th save, moving the Cajuns on through the winner’s bracket to face No. 2 seed Arizona at 7 p.m. Saturday. Friday’s win was the Cajuns 11th straight.
“There’s an old saying man, when you’ve got a Cadillac, you don’t leave it in the garage, you drive it,” said coach Tony Robichaux. “(Moore) is a Caddy. He’s coming in. We took him out of the garage.”
The game was dominated by pitching early. With a capacity crowd on hand, Powers turned it into an advantage.
The Tigers’ ace pitcher normally checks in with a fastball topping out in the high 80s, but he was amped by the vocal crowd and struck out the side in the first inning while reaching 93 with his fastball according to the stadium radar gun.
He retired the first five batters he faced before Steven Sensley crushed one of the few mistake pitches he made over the right field wall for his sixth home run of the season.
Cajuns freshman right-hander Nick Lee matched Powers. He allowed a run to come home in the first thanks to a one-out triple and a sacrifice fly, but he quickly settled in after that.
Following the triple, Lee retired 14 of the next 16 batters he faced. In the meantime, the Cajuns once more took advantage of a Powers mistake when Kennon Fontenot’s fifth-inning home run had just enough juice to clear the wall in right field and give the Cajuns a 2-1 lead.
“I had no idea (it cleared the fence),” Fontenot said. “I looked up and (third base coach Jeremy) Talbot was waving his arm, so I was still going. I touched third and he said, ‘Alright, it’s gone.’”
But Princeton cracked the code on Lee to start the sixth inning. The top of the Tigers’ order opened the frame with three consecutive singles off Lee, tying the game at two, and Robichaux did not hesitate to make the call to his bullpen for hard-throwing right-hander Eric Carter (6-2).
“I thought the game was on the line right there,” Robichaux said. “… A true freshman got us where he got us, and I thought it was time to give it to an older arm, a more experienced arm.”
Carter struck out the first two batters he faced, but then allowed an RBI single and a walk to load the bases.
“I was more frustrated with myself; I knew I could do better than that,” Carter said. “I tried to focus on the hitter, it was me and (catcher) Nick Thurman playing catch. … I was trying to get that last out any way I could.”
He got catcher Max West to softly line out to shortstop to end the threat and leave the bases loaded.
After the Cajuns went down in order again against Powers in the sixth, they finally pieced together their first multiple hit inning against him in the seventh.
Stefan Trosclair led off with a sharp single, then moved to second on Brenn Conrad’s sacrifice bunt. Having already seen what Sensley could do to a fastball, Powers fed the Cajuns power left-hander a steady diet of breaking balls until he struck him out, bringing Fontenot to the dish with two outs.
Fontenot fought an 0-2 pitch off his hands and plopped it into shallow center field to score Trosclair and tie the game.
“That guy was a good pitcher, he really located his stuff,” Fontenot said. “But we never got down on ourselves. We knew our inning was going to come. That’s all we did, we just kept coming.”
Powers finished the game as the tough-luck loser, allowing five runs on seven hits in 7.1 strong innings. But he earned an admirer in Robichaux after the game.
“To come in here and take that crowd and use it, he did an exceptional job, he really did,” Robichaux said. “The only thing we’ve got to try to do in situations like that is match him, play defense and hold on. We were able to do that.”
The Cajuns will send ace left-hander Gunner Leger to the mound against the Wildcats with a chance to advance to the regional championship.