Kole McKinnon’s offensive numbers don’t put him among UL’s baseball leaders, but coach Tony Robichaux doesn’t mind at all seeing the Ragin’ Cajuns catcher at the plate in key situations.
“His batting average’s not that high, but if you slide over to average with runners in scoring position, it’s good,” Robichaux said. “He’s one of the guys we have that has a knack to hit with runners on.”
The South Alabama Jaguars put on a clinic in both the power and short games Friday at Russo Park.
The senior catcher had a key two-run single that broke open a close game and had four effective at-bats Saturday that helped the Cajuns post an 8-4 win over South Alabama and even up their weekend Sun Belt Conference series. The teams will play the rubber game at 1 p.m. Sunday.
McKinnon’s sacrifice fly in the second inning came minutes after the visiting Jaguars had put up a four-run inning and taken a 4-0 lead. Two innings later, McKinnon was part of a Cajuns lineup that took advantage of USA pitching wildness, forcing in a run when he was hit by a pitch.
That five-run fourth gave UL a 6-4 advantage through four innings, and one inning later McKinnon delivered a two-out single to center field that scored Handsome Monica and Tremaine Spears to build a four-run advantage.
UL coach Tony Robichaux has been trying to do better than a 3-2 week all season long.
From there, the Cajuns (18-20, 7-7) turned it over to the pitching staff, with relievers Caleb Armstrong and Gunner Leger not allowing a Jaguar runner past second base over the final four innings.
That came in support of starter Brandon Young (2-3), who came back from a shaky second inning to strike out seven Jaguars (15-19, 5-9) from the third through fifth innings. He left with the 8-4 lead after McKinnon laced a curveball from USA reliever Chase Lambert for his fifth-inning two-run single that tacked on some insurance runs.
“We work had as a collective group to be able to come big and do things the right way,” McKinnon said. “It’s making sure I get my job done, whether it’s moving a guy over or getting a guy in. It’s more of a mindset than physical. If there are guys on, I’m doing all I can to at least get the ball in play.”
There’s nothing more frustrating than finally getting to the top of the hill and then getting pushed back down.
McKinnon’s sacrifice fly plated Spears in the second, and the Cajuns took advantage of a walk and three hit batters from Jaguars starter Caleb Yarbrough (2-5) in the fourth. McKinnon and Brennan Breaux were both hit to force in Monica and Spears, and reliever Joel Cheatwood uncorked a wild pitch to score Orynn Veillon with the tying run.
One walk and one out later, Hunter Kasuls laced a ground-rule double down the right-field line to score McKinnon and Breaux for the two-run lead.
“They did what we did last night, started hitting people and walking people,” Robichaux said, referring to USA’s 9-2 win in Friday’s series opener. “We took advantage of it, and then did a real good job with Armstrong bridging the gap to Gunner to take the eighth and ninth.”
Options don’t always produce victories, but having more of them certainly makes the coach feel a lot better in pursuit of that daily goal.
Young finished with nine strikeouts, and USA got all its runs in only one inning. Two walks and a hit batter loaded the bases, and one out later nine-hole hitter Dakota Dailey doubled inside the right-field line to score all three. Michael Sandle’s two-out bloop single scored Dailey for the 4-0 lead.
“I went over and told Brandon to recalibrate,” Robichaux said. “They got one that fileted down the line on us and did a lot of damage, but it wasn’t the hit that did the damage. It was the two walks and the hit batter. I told him that’s all controllable, and if you don’t recalibrate and they start to tack on, it’s going to be a long day for us.”
Young still trained 4-1 in the fourth and the Jaguars had the bases loaded on a double, an intentional walk and an error, but the junior right-hander struck out the last two batters of the inning just before the Cajuns’ five-run uprising.
“He (Young) has so much spin rate, he’s a guy that can pitch to the top of the strike zone,” Robichaux said. “The thing you have to watch out for with him is sometimes he gets a little too high and he’ll walk people. He has to calibrate that fastball where it’s just high enough for them to swing at.”
Armstrong allowed two baserunners in the sixth and seventh, and Leger gave up three scratch singles but was never in trouble in the final two innings in his fourth appearance since moving to the bullpen — a move Robichaux said he couldn’t take credit for.
“We don’t make a lot of decisions with him,” he said. “He’s the one that came to us to be the closer. I didn’t move him to the bullpen. He said he had to build himself back up and he’d like to go one inning, two innings, three innings. Next week he wants to go three and eventually come back and start.”