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Baseball: Conrad, Toups ignite Cajuns’ 7-4 victory

Tim Buckley, Daily Advertiser, March 31, 2014

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When Collegiate Baseball’s No. 1 team in the country lost its three-game Sun Belt Conference series opener against Western Kentucky on Saturday afternoon, the pitching wasn’t quite right, the defense just wasn’t there and the bats weren’t really alive.

In Sunday’s series finale in front of 3,712 at M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field, a 7-4 Ragin’ Cajuns win over WKU, all three fell into place as coach Tony Robichaux recorded his 700th career win at UL.

Reliever Connor Toups got the job done behind starter Cody Boutte, helping Sun Belt-leading UL – now 26-3 overall and 8-1 in league play – take the series 2-1 after it also rebounded to win the nightcap of a doubleheader Saturday.

Seth Harrison had a super throw from centerfield to throw out a late-game runner at the plate Sunday, and the Cajuns turned two inning-ending double plays behind Toups.

Then there was the big bat of second baseman Jace Conrad, whose grand slam to right in the sixth inning snapped a 3-3 tie and propelled UL to its 16th win in its last 17 outings.

It’s was Conrad’s second grand slam of the season, and the third of his Cajun career.

“He’s money,” UL coach Tony Robichaux said of Conrad, a junior from Lafayette High riding a 13-game hit streak thanks to the grand slam. “If there’s anybody we want at the plate in a tough situation, it’s Jace – because he’s tough.

“He’s a gamer,” Robichaux added. “He really stepped on the gas right there and broke this thing open.”

UL jumped to a 3-0 lead as Ryan Leonards doubled, advanced on a wild pitch and scored on Harrison’s RBI-groundout in the first, and Harrison followed with a two-out, two-run homer – bringing along Leonards, who had singled – in the third.

But WKU tied it in the top of the fifth, when the Hilltoppers tagged Boutte for three runs on four hits and chased him before the final out of the half-inning.

Enter Toups, a redshirt-freshman lefty from St. Thomas More High who prior to Sunday had thrown only 1.2 innings over three appearances this season.

He allowed only three hits and one run, earned in the eighth, over his 4.1 innings. It was the first career win for Toups, who became the 10th Cajun pitcher to record a victory this season.

“I just wanted to come in and shut the faucet, and not let anybody score, and give my team a chance to win,” Toups said.

“He’s part of that group (of young pitchers) that had to work while they wait – you know, try to wait for your opportunity,” Robichaux added.

“And he made the most of it. … Connor did a great job of finishing that game for us.”

UL had a comfy lead late thanks to the grand slam by Conrad during a sixth inning in which Leonards walked, Tyler Girouard bunted him over to second and Caleb Adams singled to load the bases.

“I didn’t know it was going right away,” Conrad said. “I figured it had a shot. I had to talk to it a little bit, but it ended up going over the fence.”

Toups, figuring he’d be counted on to go deep because UL used so many arms in Saturday’s twinbill, benefitted from a 5-4-3 double play to get out of the sixth and a 4-6-3 double play to get out of the seventh.

Toups called both “very clutch.”

After allowing the one in the eighth, he got out of that inning as Harrison gunned down catcher Ryan Messex at the plate.

Messex was trying to score from second on Trevor Lowe’s single up the middle, but Harrison threw a strike to Cajuns catcher Michael Strentz.

“He (Harrison) saved me right there,” Toups said.

“It was a big part of the game,” Harrison added. “I was just glad to be able to put a decent throw on it to give Mike a chance to tag him out, and we were able to get him. That killed a little bit of their momentum.”

Toups retired the Hilltoppers 1-2-3 in the ninth, ending it by getting Regan Flaherty to line out to Conrad at second.

“We did a great job of answering back after that tough day (Saturday),” said Robichaux, whose Cajuns close a nine-game homestand with a non-conference outing Tuesday night vs. Tulane.

“We pitched better (Sunday), we played better defense and we got timely hitting,” he added. “When you do those three things, you’ve got an great opportunity to win.”

LAGNIAPPE: Leonards had two hits and scored three runs Sunday, and was the only Cajun with more than one hit. Harrison had three RBIs, and Conrad four with the grand slam. … Adams extended his streak of consecutive games reaching base to 23 with a walk in the second, Conrad stretched his to 19 and Harrison took his to 17. … Robichaux is now 700-462-1 at UL, and 963-639-1 all-time including his time at McNeese State. … Dating back to the end of last season, UL has won eight straight weekend series. … UL went 4-1 in five games since being ranked No. 1 by Collegiate Baseball last Monday. All five national polls will be updated today.