LAFAYETTE — Louisiana-Lafayette baseball coach Tony Robichaux rolled the dice with his pitching Sunday afternoon in an NCAA tournament Lafayette regional elimination game. A first-year freshman and a senior made the gamble pay off.
With that, the Ragin’ Cajuns advanced to the first of a possible two regional championship games against Mississippi State late Sunday night.
Freshman Chris Charpentier scattered four hits in his first start and, after a three-hour rain delay, senior Matt Hicks shut out Jackson State over the final five innings as the Cajuns coasted to an 11-1 win.
The Cajuns (55-8) were dumped into the losers’ bracket after Friday’s opening game — a shocking, 1-0 loss to the SWAC tournament champions — but Sunday’s opener was never in doubt after second baseman Jace Conrad’s grand slam in the top of the second inning put UL-Lafayette up 6-1.
An inning later it was 8-1, and by that time Charpentier had settled in after giving up an unearned run in the first inning. The freshman from Berwick, who threw five pivotal innings in the Cajuns’ win over Texas-Arlington in the final of last week’s Sun Belt Conference tournament, allowed only one runner past second base and struck out five.
“Chris did his job; he threw really well,” said Conrad, who finished the game 3-for-5 with six RBIs. “He’s a freshman, but this was great experience for him. He deserved it.”
The win put the Cajuns into Sunday’s late game against Mississippi State, a game originally scheduled for 6 p.m. but pushed back more than two hours by a rain delay during the first game. UL-Lafayette won that one 14-8 to force a 6 p.m. Monday “if-necessary” game to advance to host a super regional.
The only thing standing in front of Charpentier was that delay and the rapidly darkening clouds that began to surround Moore Field early in Sunday’s game. Those clouds eventually generated lightning, and one pitch into the bottom of the fifth inning the players were sent to the dugouts because of lightning in the area. The delay eventually included consistent showers and eventually reached 3 hours and 12 minutes before the game was restarted just before 6 p.m.
“The delay hurt us there,” Robichaux said. “We thought we could get a couple more (innings) from Charpentier. He got us off to a good start.”
That left it to Hicks, the team’s leader in ERA (1.62) entering the regional, and the right-hander didn’t disappoint the 3,601 in attendance as he allowed only four hits and six baserunners over the final five innings. Hicks (8-1) fanned four and faced five over the minimum.
“Matt came to me and said he was going the rest of the way,” Robichaux said. “He knew because of his back he was out for (Monday) anyway.”
Charpentier found out late Saturday night that he would likely get the start — via a text from Robichaux.
“He said to be ready if they decided to save (Cody) Boutte for the second game,” Charpentier said. “I slept well; I felt fine. I knew I just had to get ahead of the hitters and pitch to our system.”
Once the Cajuns got the early surge off JSU starter Christopher Wingard (2-2), Charpentier said things were much easier.
“Anyone can pitch if you’re up eight runs,” he said. “Once we got the momentum going, I felt really comfortable.”
The Cajuns got a first-inning run — after suffering through nine scoreless innings against the Tigers (32-25) on Friday — on Caleb Adams’ sacrifice fly, but JSU evened things in the bottom of the inning when Gary Thomas had a leadoff double and eventually scored on a throwing error.
But Jackson State’s hopes for a second straight upset of the nation’s top-ranked team were dashed when Wingard ran into control troubles. After a leadoff bunt single by Seth Harrison, Wingard walked Michael Strentz and Ryan Leonards to bring Conrad to the plate. Conrad hit a first-pitch fastball over the right-field wall for his third grand slam of the season.
“We walked too many people,” JSU coach Omar Johnson said. “They took advantage of our mistakes. We left a pitch up, and they hit the ball out of the park. You have to give them all of the credit.”
“We owed them one,” Conrad said of Friday’s loss. “We let one slip away earlier, so it was important to come out and get on top early.”
The Cajuns added one more run after Conrad’s eighth homer of the year on an error, and Leonards’ double and Blake Trahan’s sacrifice fly off reliever Andre Rodriguez made it 8-1 in the third.
Two innings later, the teams were sent off the field.
“Rain delays are tough on pitchers,” Johnson said. “It was definitely frustrating being down, but you have to learn how to handle that and play this time of year because you have to play every inning and every pitch.”
“The delay may have helped us,” Robichaux said. “It gave us a chance to cool off, get off our feet.”
The Cajuns put the game away with three runs in the seventh, with Conrad’s two-run single and Trahan’s second sacrifice fly providing the final runs. The six RBIs for Conrad gave him 61 for the season.