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Baseball: Big days ahead – Strentz awaits Regional, coming pro draft

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, May 29, 2013

Even through the worst of times for the UL baseball team in 2012, catcher Michael Strentz wanted to play.

To share the experience.

To belong.

But he could not, sidelined instead by Tommy John surgery for most of a season in which the Ragin’ Cajuns went 23-30 and failed to even qualify for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

“It’s very hard to watch your team go and play without you,” Strentz said. “But I did my part. I stayed in the dugout and supported them through the whole thing.”

This year, things are of-so-different.

The Comeaux High product is integral to a 41-18 club that reached the title game of the Sun Belt tourney before falling last Sunday to Florida Atlantic and, on Monday, learned it will play in the LSU-hosted Baton Rouge NCAA Regional that opens for the Cajuns with a 7 p.m. Friday game against Southland Conference regular-season champ Sam Houston State.

The surgically typically involves a tendon from elsewhere in the body being grafted to surgically reconstruct the elbow’s torn ulnar collateral ligament.

Strentz knew going in he wouldn’t be able to pick up a ball for six months.

He started swinging the bat well before that, but the rest did not come easy.

“I just focused on getting my throwing motion back, and not being scared to let it go,” Strentz said. “That’s what I did, and now I’m fine.

“My arm feels great. It actually feels a little better than it did before, and now that I got it done there’s nothing to really worry about except to just go out and play.”

There was one brief interruption earlier this season, though, when in early March, during a non-conference home series against Sacred Heart, Strentz was hit by a pitch and sustained a fracture in his left, non-throwing hand.

Predictably, the injury did not keep him out long at all.

In fact, he missed only three games – a series at Southern Mississippi – before returning for a three-game Sun Belt sweep of UL Monroe.

“I came back pretty early with it, and it still hurt,” Strentz said. “But once it started healing all the way, I got back in the groove of swinging and everything came easy again.”

Strentz, who was hitting .395 before breaking his hand, understood his much-improved average at the plate with probably take a hit due to the premature return.

But that was the least of his concerns.

“I wasn’t worried about the numbers at all,” he said. “I just wanted to go out and help my team win, and I did everything I could to come out and do it.”

Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux wasn’t shocked at all.

“I think he’s overcome all of that just because of how tough a kid he is. Mike’s a tough kid,” Robichaux said. “He’s weathered, and he’s got a high threshold of pain.

“Those (type) guys … they usually come back so much quicker of off anything, sometimes to their own detriment. Because when they say they hurt, you know they’re hurting.”

So when Strentz let it be known he was injured, Robichaux believed him. When Strentz said he was good to go again, Robichaux trusted that he was. And now Strentz is toward the tail end of a season that’s gone so well it might be the last at UL for the redshirt sophomore.

But if the hometown catcher does sign and go pro after next week’s draft, it may – or may not – wind up being a career in which he plays mostly the position he is now.

Because as well as he handles Cajun pitchers, that is not all the 6-foot-1, 205-pounder can do.

“Realistically, he’s a guy that can project out as an outfielder,” said Robichaux, who has 42 players drafted during his 19 seasons at UL. “I’ve never seen him try to catch a ground ball or anything, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he could play first base either.

“But definitely he can play right-field or left-field at the next level, and I think that’s gonna be a big, big thing for him.

“You’re getting an athlete,” Robichaux added. “You’re not getting just a … catcher that’s got to stay behind the plate (because he) can’t move out from behind (it).”

For now, though, it doesn’t matter where the scouts think he might look best.

That’s because Strentz must first decide where he can best see himself playing beyond this season. And for now, with the Regional on his mind and the draft yet to come, that’s no easy task.

“It’s crazy, because next year I know they’re gonna be real good, and of course I’d like to come over here and get a ring with them,” Strentz said. “But everybody wants to make it to the bigger level, and if I can do that, I most likely will.”

Strentz is hitting .319, well up from .216 during his freshman season in 2011. His 23 doubles this season are just two shy of the school-record 25 set by Kevin Meyers in 1989. He has 43 RBIs, 49 runs scored and is seemingly certain to be selected sometime in the June 6-8 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

But, most importantly to Strentz, the Cajuns are on a roll, headed to their first NCAA Regional since 2010 having won seven of their last eight and 10 of their last 13.

“I’m glad I got to be a part of (this year),” Strentz said. “But even though they had a bad season last year, I still wanted to be a part of that – just because baseball is fun, and last year we just didn’t get it done because, I felt like, nobody was really a team.

“This year, coming off that, it was real fun. We’re very close. … We come together, and we win together, and we lose together, as brothers.”

Mostly, especially lately, it’s been win together.

Before Strentz could have a hand in that, though, he had to rehab from Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm that came early during a season in which he was playing mostly in the outfield